Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced today that the group has completed a mailing to 285,000 churches nationwide encouraging religious leaders not to distribute voter guides prepared by TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
AU's campaign is a first-of-its-kind national drive to educate church leaders about the dangers of distributing Coalition materials, which Americans United insists are slanted political propaganda.
The successful AU mailing comes at a time when Robertson has taken his message on tour for a series of "God and Country" rallies in states expected to be critical in the upcoming presidential race. Robertson has made appearances desperately touting church distribution of his group's voter guides in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri within the last week.
Objective analysts agree that the Coalition's guides are deliberately stacked to favor Republican candidates. AU notes that federal tax law clearly prohibits houses of worship, which are tax-exempt, from distributing literature that supports one candidate over another.
"These voter guides are not objective or fair," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Instead, they are partisan campaign propaganda."
Added Lynn, "The Coalition's guides don't belong in church sanctuaries, they belong at the local recycling center. The mailing AU has completed is designed to ensure that they end up there.
"We believe our letters to churches will throw a monkey wrench into Pat Robertson's political machine," Lynn said.
Lynn accused Robertson of trying to mislead America's religious leaders. "Robertson claims two federal courts have cleared the way for church distribution of Coalition guides," Lynn said. "A closer look at the facts proves he simply isn't telling the truth."
In the Federal Election Commission v. Christian Coalition ruling, Robertson's group won most of a case that had been filed against it by the FEC. But instead of approving distribution of the group's materials, U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green specifically noted that the Coalition's voter guides have "made clear which candidates the Coalition preferred." Thus, experts say, houses of worship may not distribute them. Also, the court ruled on matters relating to federal election law, which is notoriously weak and full of loopholes, not federal tax law, which is much stricter and applies to churches.
In addition, in Christian Coalition v. IRS, the government agreed to settle the case by conceding that the Coalition was tax exempt -- but only for the year 1990. The tax agency agreed to refund the organization $169.26 in taxes it paid for that year. This does not clear tax-exempt houses of worship to distribute the group's political materials. The Coalition falls under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows the group to engage in significant electioneering. Churches, however, fall under 501(c)(3), which prohibits all partisan political activities.
Lynn noted that the Christian Coalition relies on churches as virtually the only method of distribution for its guides.
"The Christian Coalition can legally produce their partisan guides," said Lynn, "but churches, as tax-exempt institutions, can't distribute them."
Christian Coalition leaders have effectively admitted that the voter guides are partisan political materials that support particular candidates.
For example, in a September mailing to the group's supporters, Roberta Combs, executive vice-president of the Christian Coalition, described the voter guides as "the most effective tool to educate voters about candidates who deserve Christian support."
Moreover, Robertson himself acknowledged earlier this year that he intends to use the guides to help elect George W. Bush.
In a remarkable interview that aired on CNN during the primary season, before Bush had won the GOP nomination, Robertson told Wolf Blitzer that if McCain got the Republican nomination, the group "would not put out 75 million voter guides, would not urge its membership to vote for anybody in the general election.... You know, we're not under the obligation to put out any literature for anybody."
Observed AU's Lynn, "Robertson has admitted that his voter guides are put out on behalf of certain candidates. Thus, they can't be lawfully distributed by churches."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group and leading opponent of the Religious Right. Founded in 1947, the Washington, D.C.-based organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.