Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Robert Ehrlich's boast that he will use the promise of government funding for churches to win black votes underscores the dangers inherent in "faith-based" initiatives, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said today.
Ehrlich, a U.S. House member and leading contender for the GOP nomination for Maryland governor, said yesterday during a luncheon meeting with reporters that he will neutralize racial factors in the campaign by reaching out to the black community.
Part of that strategy apparently includes the promise of government funding for black churches. Ehrlich said he will accompany U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez next week to unveil a federal grant to New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. The church reportedly will use the money to purchase and rehabilitate HUD-owned properties in the neighborhood.
"I'm a white guy. I'm a Republican. But I'll deliver," Ehrlich said, according to an account in the May 1 Washington Post. "I'm not saying this gets me 20 percent of the black vote, but it lowers the temperature."
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said Ehrlich's plan raises serious legal and ethical questions.
"This is nothing less than 'faith-based' vote buying," said Lynn. "This is a perfect example of why government funding of religion is a bad idea. Here you have a politician literally trying to buy votes with the promise of taxpayer funding of churches. I can't imagine a more cynical manipulation of religion for partisan purposes."
Lynn noted that New Psalmist has meddled in politics before. Shortly before the November 1998 gubernatorial election in Maryland, the church hosted a rally featuring President Bill Clinton and Gov. Parris Glendening, the Democratic incumbent who was seeking reelection.
Americans United filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, asking the federal tax agency to investigate whether the church's hosting of a partisan event violated federal tax law. Churches, like other tax-exempt organizations, are forbidden to intervene in political campaigns on behalf of candidates.
"Houses of worship are supposed to be about saving souls, not selling themselves to whatever politician promises them the biggest slice of pork," said Lynn. "If the Ehrlich appearance next week at the Baltimore church turns into a partisan political rally, we will not hesitate to file another complaint with the IRS."
Americans United has led the opposition to President George W. Bush's so-called "faith-based" initiative, a plan to fund social service ministries run by churches. The church-state watchdog group has repeatedly charged that tax aid to religion will violate the Constitution, bring religious pressures to bear on Americans in need of help and entangle houses of worship with the government.
"The situation in Maryland is proof," said Lynn, "that the so-called 'faith-based' initiative, by its very nature, has the potential to corrupt churches and convert them into cogs in political machines."
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.