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Senators ask Reno to investigate activities of Americans United

WASHINGTON (BP)–Six Republican senators have called for Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based organization that has targeted churches for the use of voter guides such as those distributed by Christian Coalition and challenged their tax-exempt status.
The Southern Baptist Convention helped start Americans United in 1947, but the two have grown increasingly apart on most issues during the last two decades.
The senators wrote Reno July 2, but the letter was not made public until July 19. They asked her to investigate whether AU has broken federal law by warning churches against using the voter guides. They called such efforts by AU a “subterfuge for a threatened [Internal Revenue Service] review of their tax-exempt status.”
“If it is true that Americans United or any other organization has attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process — thereby silencing their voices on moral issues, then all Americans should be outraged,” the senators wrote. The senators urged Reno to prosecute any organization or person guilty of interfering with the right to vote.
The six senators who signed on to the letter were Sam Brownback of Kansas, Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. On July 19, AU released a copy of the letter, which was provided to the organization by a source who asked to remain anonymous, with only the signatures of Coverdell, Helms and Sessions on it. Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor reported July 20 the other three senators also signed on.
In a July 19 letter to Coverdell, Helms and Sessions, AU Executive Director Barry Lynn described the request of Reno as an “outrageous and wholly baseless action” and asked for a retraction and public apology.
AU’s attempts “to educate churches and religious leaders about the legal difficulties associated with houses of worship engaging in partisan politicking have been clearly lawful and reasonable,” Lynn said in a written release. “What you have chosen to describe as ‘intimidation’ is actually an educational effort designed to inform religious leaders about federal tax law.”
Lynn, who has led AU since 1992, charged the senators’ letter was a response to a request by Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson. Robertson met with Republican leadership, including Nickles and Coverdell, June 17, according to AU. AU “is being singled out for attack for a simple reason — because we have the nerve to stand up to Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition,” Lynn wrote. “It is clear to us that the senators’ request for an investigation is politically motivated. This is politics at its worst.”
An aide to Helms called the charge about Robertson’s role in the letter “preposterous,” according to CQ Daily Monitor.
A spokeswoman for Coverdell said there was no discussion of AU’s warnings to churches at Robertson’s meeting with GOP leaders, The Washington Times reported.
In a prepared statement, Mike Russell, a spokesman for Christian Coalition, said AU “has engaged in a blatant campaign of intimidating not only pastors but individual voters who choose to be active in the political process. We applaud any effort that seeks to open the door for citizen participation in our electoral process. We call on Americans United to end its campaign of selective enforcement of the First Amendment and we applaud Senate leadership for its acknowledgment that religious and social conservatives have every right to participate in the process we call democracy.”
AU has targeted Christian Coalition and its activities for several years. In June, it was revealed the IRS had rejected the coalition’s application for tax-exempt status after a 10-year investigation. AU had been up front about its call for the IRS to reject tax-exemption for the organization.
In a January fund-raising letter, Lynn said AU’s prime target is the religious right. He has dedicated his life “to stopping them — from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Pat Buchanan — right on down to their foot soldiers.”
After the 1998 election, AU announced it had reported eight churches to the IRS for distributing Christian Coalition voter guides. Among the churches were Wheaton (Ill.) Evangelical Free Church; Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, Calif.; and Lighthouse Baptist Church in St. Maries, Idaho.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which is another Robertson-supported organization, said it would defend the churches against any IRS actions.
“Americans United is playing politics in the worst way,” said Jay Sekulow, ACLJ’s chief counsel, in a Dec. 15 statement. “This self-appointed ‘watchdog’ group targeted only religious conservatives and conveniently ignored a number of churches around the country that distributed information and invited liberal candidates to speak before election day. The agenda of this group is clear: Target religious conservatives and employ scare tactics in an attempt to stifle free speech.”
ACLJ acknowledges federal law prohibits voter guides from endorsing or opposing candidates, but contends the Christian Coalition guides do not violate the IRS code. AU contends, however, they are illegal and says it opposes any materials churches distribute that support or oppose candidates.
Christian Coalition’s voter-guide effort is the most well-known of numerous such enterprises. A more liberal organization that has used voter guides is The Interfaith Alliance. It distributed voter guides in some congressional races in 1996 but did so through the mail, not houses or worship, an alliance spokeswoman said. It does not plan to use voter guides in the 2000 election, she said.
Though the SBC was involved in the founding of AU more than 50 years ago, Southern Baptists have grown increasingly disenchanted with the organization since the denomination’s conservative resurgence began in 1979. Probably no organization that deals with religion in public life takes a more strictly separationist view of the relationship between church and government than AU. The SBC and its religious liberty agency, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have expressed the view in recent years that government should more freely accommodate the religious expressions of the people.
Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and a former legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, has made clear his support for abortion and homosexual rights, views also far from the mainstream of Southern Baptist life.
Some Southern Baptist laymen have sought to publicize AU’s positions and the Southern Baptists who support the organization.
Bill Streich, a Wichita Falls, Texas, layman and trustee of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, was stirred into action against AU when Lynn threatened First Baptist Church, Wichita Falls, with an AU complaint to the Internal Revenue Service last year.
Lynn’s threat, circulated by a national news release, followed a sermon by First Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress challenging the 8,400-member congregation to “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his Word.” Jeffress’ comments were made in the midst of a controversy over the city library’s circulation of two children’s books promoting the homosexual lifestyle.
Lynn wrote, “If you proceed with your plan to use your church to defeat city council members with whom you disagree, you are placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy.”
Streich described Lynn’s various positions as “not surprising when one considers that his governing boards consist of leaders in humanism, gay activism, the National Council of Churches, PAW [the Norman Lear-founded People for the American Way], Unitarian Universalism, abortion rights activism, etc. What is surprising is that the heads of both the Texas Baptist CLC and the BJCPA [Baptist Joint Committee], Phil Strickland and James Dunn, also serve on AU’s governing boards and have done so for several years!!!!”
Southern Baptists have served on AU’s boards throughout its history, but in recent years the trustee and advisory council members have been limited mostly to individuals connected with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The CBF is an organization within the SBC founded in response to the denomination’s conservative stance. The BJC previously was the SBC’s church-state organization in Washington but was defunded in the early 1990s, at least in part because of its church-state separationist views.
During the 1990s, Baptists active in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and/or the Baptist Joint Committee who have served on Americans United’s governing board include Dunn, the BJC’s outgoing executive director, and Brent Walker, BJC general counsel; Cecil Sherman, former coordinator of the CBF; Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists and a former BJC staff member; Strickland, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission; C. Welton Gaddy, director of The Interfaith Alliance and a recent president of Americans United; Foy Valentine, former executive director of the SBC’s former Christian Life Commission and AU president from 1989-93; Jimmy Allen, a former SBC president and AU president from 1969-77; and Paul Simmons, a former ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Robert Maddox, current editor of the Capital Baptist in Washington, D.C., was AU’s executive director from 1984-92, succeeded by Lynn. Another state Baptist paper editor, R.G. Puckett, who retired last year from the North Carolina Biblical Recorder, was AU’s executive director from 1979-82.
One Southern Baptist who resigned from AU’s advisory council was Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newsjournal. He resigned in 1991 because AU “was becoming a ‘liberal’ group,” he wrote in a 1995 letter to pastors when he was still editor of the Word and Way, the newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Roger Moran, research director of the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association, which has taken AU and other organizations to task on numerous cultural issues, described AU as “an umbrella organization for some of the most liberal religious/secular organizations in America. The one thing that unifies the left is their support for the wall of separation of church and state.”
At issue, Moran said, are “institutional” and “ideological” separation of church and state.
“Conservatives support institutional separation of church,” he said, “but what has unified the left is their support for ideological separation” — a separation aimed at “sidelining Bible-believing Christians” from advocating their values.