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Americans United Letter On Church Electioneering Gets No Stamp Of Approval From Religious Right

Focus on the Family power-broker James Dobson was ready to sit out this year’s election battles. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of social-issues legislation in GOP-dominated Washington, he was angry at the Republican politicians he helped put in power.

At the Religious Right’s “2006 Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C., in September, Dobson said, “For the past two years, for the most of it, I’ve been extremely disappointed with what the Republicans have done with the power they were given.”

But after contemplating a Congress with the Democrats in charge, he explained, the Colorado Springs-based religious broadcaster changed his mind.

Dobson told a packed ballroom at the Omni Shoreham that during the summer he prayed about what to do. And then he came to Washington where he spent two weeks in a hotel room meeting with different leaders of the House and Senate and various government offices.

“And I tell you what,” Dobson said, “I came home absolutely convinced that there is no choice because the alternative is terrible.”

Despite his misgivings about the Republican Party, Dobson has thrown himself and his vast Focus on the Family (FOF) empire behind keeping the GOP in power. In August, his ministry sent an e-mail to supporters that announced a major effort to use houses of worship in battleground states to intervene in the elections.

Dobson’s FOF appealed for volunteers to work with affiliates in eight states with hotly contested congressional and gubernatorial races to mobilize evangelical Christian voters. Targets announced were Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee.

According to the e-mail, Dobson’s outfit was recruiting coordinators for each county and each evangelical congregation throughout the states. Activists would be asked to prod pastors to speak about political issues, conduct voter-registration drives and distribute “voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has long opposed the Religious Right’s efforts to meld politics and religion, blasted FOF’s scheme as a “drive to build a church-based machine.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press statement that houses of worship, which are tax-exempt and therefore nonpartisan, should refuse to work with Dobson.

“He has made it abundantly clear that electing Republicans is an integral part of his agenda, and he doesn’t mind risking the tax exemption of churches in the process,” Lynn said.

Americans United swiftly went on the offensive. Since 1996, AU has sponsored Project Fair Play, a program designed to educate houses of worship on federal tax law provisions barring non-profit groups from electioneering. The Internal Revenue Service Code prohibits all non-profits, including religious ones, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. If groups are found by the IRS to be in violation of that bar, they risk losing their tax privileges or being fined.

In September, Americans United kicked Project Fair Play into high gear, rolling out a massive mailing to all houses of worship in 11 states, where questionable Religious Right efforts are under way.

At a press conference Sept. 18 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Lynn announced the endeavor. Those states included the ones targeted by Dobson, as well as Texas, Virginia and Mis­souri, where Americans United was aware of similar Reli­gious Right politicking schemes.

Lynn told reporters that the letter was not meant to muzzle the voices of religious leaders, despite the Religious Right’s claims to the contrary.

Religious Right organizations, such as FOF and the Family Research Council have “engaged in a great deal of fear-mongering over this issue and have implied that my organization is trying to gag clergy,” Lynn said. “This is totally false.

“We have repeatedly pointed out, and do so again today, that our goal is not to prevent pastors from addressing the ethical issues of the day from the pulpit,” he continued. “What houses of worship cannot do under federal law is endorse or oppose candidates for public office.”

The AU letter, which went into the mail that week to more than 117,000 houses of worship, noted that the IRS has announced it is heightening enforcement of the federal tax code’s prohibition against electioneering. (See “Churches, Politics And The IRS,” September 2006 Church & State.) The missive, signed by AU’s Lynn, urged religious leaders to be especially wary of so-called “voter guides.”

“Such guides,” Lynn wrote, “are often thinly veiled partisan materials. If the IRS finds that a violation has occurred, it may be the house of worship, not the organization that produced the guide that is penalized.”

At the press conference, Lynn told reporters that Dobson’s election intervention is clearly partisan.

“Anyone who thinks Dobson is doing this for non-partisan reasons is probably also convinced that ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is going to win an Oscar for best picture,” Lynn quipped.

AU’s letter captured widespread media attention. The New York Times published an article about the IRS’s ramped-up enforcement and noted that AU’s letter followed the federal tax agency’s recent study of the 2004 election cycle that showed an increase in illegal electioneering by churches and other nonprofits.

Lynn told The Times that FOF’s voter guides are almost certain to be partisan. He added that the Religious Right’s attempt   to enlist churches in campaign schemes is “absolutely illegal” and “divides churches.”

Indeed, an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding a Religious Right rally where Dobson spoke noted that the voter guides distributed during the event were supportive of embattled incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

“Issue guides being distributed last night,” the newspaper reported, “clearly favored Mr. Santorum.”

Lou Dobbs, an anchor and pundit for CNN, in a column posted on the cable news network’s Web site, argued against congregational involvement in campaigns and quoted from Lynn’s speech at the National Press Club.

The reaction from Religious Right groups and pundits to Americans United’s letter project was quick and predictably hostile.

Tom Minnery, a top official of Dobson’s FOF, blasted Lynn in the Times article, calling him “the bully on the playground.” He told the Associated Press that Americans United’s work was all about chasing churches out of the political arena.

A day after Lynn’s press briefing, Dobson’s e-mail newsletter CitizenLink provided more attack and hyperbole about Americans United’s letter.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, bemoaned the AU letter, accusing Lynn of advocating “the monitoring of pastors’ sermons by the government.”

Kevin Hasson, president of  the Becket Fund, told Dobson’s newsletter that Lynn tries to “intimidate” religious leaders into keeping quite on social issues.

Sekulow and other Religious Right figures also argued that the voter guides produced by Dobson’s group are objective, fair and in no way tilted to Republican candidates seeking re-election.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), another Religious Right lawyers outfit with close ties to Dobson, sent word to their members that they would defend any church that comes under IRS investigation for improper politicking. On Sept. 19, the ADF announced it was sending out letters to “pastors across the U.S.” urging them to ignore “scare tactics and seize the opportunities to speak out for moral truth.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also followed the Religious Right talking points on Americans United’s letter. Writing in a Sept. 28 column for BP News, he charged that election season is inevitably a time for Lynn and Americans United to “roll their scare machine out of the closet.”

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, many speakers, including Dobson, frequently lambasted Americans Uni­ted’s letter. Those attacks were followed by exhortations for Religious Right activists, pastors and religious leaders to go back to their communities and spur their congregants to the polls on behalf of politicians opposed to reproductive rights, civil rights for gays and the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

From the stage in a large ballroom in the hotel, Dobson, Perkins and ADF’s president Alan Sears held a three-way conversation that blasted Americans United and called on pastors nationwide to help Republicans retain power.

Perkins urged pastors to use the gay marriage issue to prod their congregants to the polls.

“The opposition to our work with pastors, they know that they must silence the church if they want to advance same-sex marriage and the radical homosexual agenda,” Perkins said.

“In fact,” Perkins continued, “a man by the name of Barry Lynn, who heads up Americans United for the Division of the Country, has sent out letters to pastors countering the work we do.” Perkins, conceded that “some of” the letter is true, but attacked it as mostly misleading.

“I would tell pastors,” Perkins continued, “that if they get that letter addressed from Barry Lynn, that if they have a birdcage, then there is something they can do with that letter.”

Dobson and Sears also claimed that AU’s letter warned against issue advocacy by churches. But the second paragraph states, “The First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, religious leaders included, to speak out on religious, moral and political issues.”

Toward the end of their discussion, Dobson returned to AU’s letter and in particular Lynn. Dobson told the audience that Lynn had registered to attend the conference and that he thought Lynn was present.

“If you are here, Barry, I would love to talk to you again,” Dobson said. “Barry and I met years ago and yesterday he spoke at the National Press Club and I have a word-for-word transcript of what he had to say and he expresses great concern that Focus on the Family might lose its tax-exempt status.

“It is very, very difficult for me to believe that Barry is really worried about us,” Dobson said to roars of laughter from the packed room.

Dobson went on to accuse Lynn of not understanding federal tax law and asserted that FOF was in no danger of losing its tax privileges.

Dobson apparently had a difficult time getting Lynn off his mind. Before leaving the stage, he took a question from an attendee who wondered whether FOF and other Religious Right groups had a difficult time spreading their message.

“The media does not carry what we say,” charged Dobson. “And what I do say is countered by Barry Lynn. Barry makes a living off me, almost every day he is out there countering something that I say.”

Despite expressing aggravation with Lynn’s effectiveness, Dobson expressed some grudging admiration for his foe.

“Barry Lynn is a nice guy,” Dobson said. “I like him.”

He added that he had met Lynn many years ago and that they “had a conversation then about the fact that we didn’t agree with each other, that we didn’t see eye to eye, but that there was camaraderie there and we just have come from different ends of the universe.”

Other speakers at the summit, which was sponsored by the FRC Action and other Religious Right groups, were not as charitable. Indeed, on Sept. 23, the second day of the gathering, two pastors called for more church involvement in politics and took sweeping swipes at Lynn.

The Rev. Herb Lusk of Philadel­phia’s Greater Exodus Baptist Church appeared in a panel discussion called “Impacting the Culture through the Church.” Lusk, who advises Presi­dent George W. Bush on the “faith-based” initiative, has long called for church involvement in politics. In 2000, he endorsed Bush during the Republican Convention, via a video hookup from his church. (AU reported the incident to the IRS.)

Lusk declared that too many pastors had been intimidated from becoming involved in politics. But he assured the gathering, “Your God will protect you…. You have nothing to fear.”

He then launched into a tirade against Lynn.

“The enemy is out there,” Lusk said. “I know that name is Barry. But we won’t mention his name today or ever again. We know who our enemy is. The more you call the enemy’s name, the larger he becomes.”

Apparently not everyone followed Lusk’s directive to stop invoking Lynn’s name.

Leading an afternoon session dubbed “In Defense of Mixing Church and State from Acts 16,” the Rev. Rick Scarborough railed against Lynn and Americans United for supposedly muzzling evangelical Christians.

Scarborough, a Texas preacher and head of the Religious Right political group Vision America, hosted a conference at the same hotel earlier in the year. (During that event, he pontificated about the so-called “war on Christians” in America and attacked church-state separation as a “bald-faced lie.”)

Scarborough told the Values Voter Summit that the nation’s pastors had “been lied to a lot by the likes of Barry Lynn who fire off those letters every two years.” It was time, Scarborough proclaimed, for evangelical churches to stop being afraid of Lynn and the arguments against mixing religion and politics.

Lynn said he is hardly distraught over the Religious Right’s attacks on him and Americans United. He said the agitation expressed by many of the movement’s leaders revealed the potency of Americans United’s work.

“We’ve got their attention, that’s for sure,” Lynn said. “The Religious Right’s frustration at our success is evident. Many of the Religious Right leaders could not contain their contempt for our work. The Religious Right is expansive and much of it very well funded. Nonetheless, Americans United has proven itself time and again to be a formidable foe to that movement. As long as the Religious Right remains a threat to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation, we will re­main persistent.”