Critical Comment: A Response To Some Of AU's Opponents

Recently, two critics attacked Americans United and accused our organization of hypocrisy. This is a serious charge. Both critics deserve an answer.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council issued an e-mail bulletin yesterday accusing me of "cherry-picking" when it comes to the issue of church intervention in partisan politics.

Perkins was upset because Americans United recently reported the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, R.I., to the Internal Revenue Service after Bishop Thomas Tobin wrote a column in the diocesan newspaper attacking presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. Tobin said he would never vote for Giuliani because of his pro-choice views on abortion and even compared the former New York City mayor to Pontius Pilate.

According to Perkins, AU is guilty of hypocrisy because we complained about this but said nothing about a recent forum the moderate evangelical group Call to Renewal hosted on CNN featuring three top Democratic presidential contenders. Perkins charged, "Obviously, AUSCS is applying its typical double standard on those who subscribe to pro-life, pro-family views. Where was Barry Lynn when Rev. Jim Wallis hosted a one-sided religious debate for Democratic presidential candidates on CNN earlier this month?"

Tony, you should have called me first. I had serious concerns about the Call to Renewal debate. To me, it seemed legally dubious to invite only three candidates. I communicated these concerns to Jim Wallis, head of Call to Renewal. He assured me everything was above board and sent a letter his attorneys had prepared saying the forum met IRS guidelines.

Just to be sure, I asked a law firm in Washington that specializes in this issue to give an opinion. Attorneys there cited an IRS revenue ruling that states that 501(c)(3) groups may apply "neutral criteria" when deciding which candidates to invite to an open forum when the field is crowded. Call to Renewal invited only those candidates who have cracked 10 percent in polls, which qualifies as neutral criteria. (As one attorney put it, "You don't have to invite Lyndon LaRouche.") Call to Renewal also plans to hold a similar forum for top Republican candidates.

Unlike Perkins, AU doesn't just pop off over these questions. We investigate them. In this case, I was satisfied that no legal violation had occurred, although I still think all of the Democratic candidates should have been invited and all of the Republicans should be invited to the GOP forum.

A second critic attacked me yesterday on this very blog over the issue of the United Church of Christ (UCC) receiving a $150,000 subsidy from the state of Connecticut to bring a convention to Hartford.

Since I am an ordained UCC minister, this issue was of great concern to me. I expressed those concerns to denominational officials, and I also asked AU's Legal Department to research the matter. AU attorneys did extensive research. They found that government officials in Connecticut give discounts to any group that brings a large crowd to town. What's offered is a rebate, not direct aid, and thus cannot be diverted to support religion. Our lawyers' view was that the courts would not rule against this kind of aid.

AU's critic was upset because AU had blocked aid in a similar case involving a Baptist group that met in Baltimore last year. Why couldn't we do the same for the UCC? The truth is, we were only able to block some of the aid in Baltimore – money that was intended to underwrite a proselytizing effort. An indirect subsidy consisting of reduced rent on the convention center was deemed "secular" and was permitted.

To be clear, I disagree with court opinions that allow rebates and so-called "indirect" aid. AU opposes government subsidies to religious groups. Religious groups should pay for their own endeavors. But again, we did research the matter and acted according to the facts.

Finally, I want to say that even though their language is not always kind, AU does appreciate its critics. They flatter us with their attention. AU strives to operate on principle, and we hope our critics do too.