The Helms Witch Hunt

A Happy Ending To An Unhappy Episode

Put away all those recipes involving how to bake cakes with files in them. It looks like the staff of  Ameri­cans United will not be going to a federal penitentiary after all, in spite of Pat Robertson's and Jesse Helms' efforts to put us there.

Last July, six members of the U.S. Senate wrote a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno urging that she investigate Americans United for possible violation of two criminal laws prohibiting interference with the right to vote. They claimed that AU had "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters" by sending pastors "urgent messages" warning of the tax implications of partisan politicking.

The real impetus for the senatorial interest, however, seemed to be the active urging of Pat Robertson who, curiously, just happened to be meeting with a number of senators just before several of them wrote the letter. He was in Washington to plot election strategy with Republican congressional leaders and to complain about the denial of the Christian Coalition's own tax-exempt status, an action he seems to link directly to Americans United.

The senators' letter actually began a six-month investigation by the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. In early January I wrote Janet Reno suggesting that if the inquiry was over, we'd like to know what had happened; if not, we'd be happy to cooperate in providing information about our activities (something we had been happy to do in July as well).

Finally, in early February, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Keeney wrote me that the charges lacked merit and that the criminal statutes were designed to "reach only threats of physical or economic harm that are communicated to voters to stimulate or deter them from voting in federal elections," not our efforts to inform people of what can and cannot be done in the arena of political education by churches and other tax-exempt groups.

Americans United, of course, issued a press release properly labeling Keeney's letter a full exoneration. Our statement also called for an apology by the six senators who acted on such flimsy "evidence" to try to stop our own constitutionally protected activity. Although it is safe to say that the initial demand to investigate us got more press attention than the decision by Ms. Reno not to, many reporters did want to close the chapter with an exoneration story. In so doing, several made efforts to contact the six senators. They got some curious responses.

Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma had an aide respond to the Tulsa World. "The aide indicated that Lynn should not be waiting by the phone," the story explained, adding that the aide said it would be "a cold day in Belize" before we got the apology. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions sent spokesman John Cox to tell the Associated Press that he "thinks Americans United is one of the most aggressively left-wing organizations in America" and is still "offended" by our suggestions of Christian Coa­lition improprieties. Pardon us.

I don't think I really expected to be sent flowers or chocolates along with a letter of apology from any of the six. However, I didn't expect that they would choose the event of our vindication to send overzealous, ill-informed assistants to issue flip responses on the subject. After all, the statutes they claimed we violated have serious consequences including prison time, heavy fines and stopping the publication of printed material.

Senators have a constitutionally mandated protection against libel and other actions when they are operating in the scope of their official duties. It is extremely important that they not irresponsibly abuse their power to make reckless charges and set in motion investigations of people and groups they don't like.

The members of Americans United made their outrage known to their elected officials. We received financial support, offers of legal representation and one (half in jest) offer to do chaplaincy visits in jail. What if we were not an organization that had such a large number of supporters? We are not easily intimidated, but others might not be sanguine about their ultimate ability to handle such charges.

From the beginning of our concern about illegal politicking by houses of worship, we have often suggested that church leaders sometimes get extremely arrogant in their belief that parishioners "need" their advice on which candidate to support (as opposed to real education on issues and help on genuine voter education). In a front-page story of the Washington Post just a few days before the South Carolina primary, religion writer Hanna Rosin suggests that the Christian Right's fervor in that state has "gone cold." Near the end of the article, Rosin quotes conservative activist Cyndi Mosteller who is not completely unhappy that the Christian Coalition fell apart there: "They have good minds and good hearts, but we will not be told by any organization who to vote for."

The tax code's ban on using church resources for partisan political campaigning is wise and constitutional. It also protects against the integrity of houses of worship being sullied by promises made by or to politicians in exchange for support. As it turns out, it is also a medicine for hubris.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.