March 2000 Church & State | Featured

Helms-Robertson Plot Against AU Fails At Justice Department

If it had been left up to six Re­publican senators and their friend Pat Robertson, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn would be sitting in a federal prison right now, locked behind bars on a charge of harassing and intimidating Christian voters.

As it turns out, Lynn won't be spending his days as a convicted felon. Last month, Attorney General Janet Reno rejected the senators' demand for the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Americans United -- and in the process cleared the organization of all charges.

The strange saga began last July, when the six senators -- Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina -- filed a formal complaint against Americans United with the Justice Department, charging that the organization's efforts to educate houses of worship about tax law was a violation of federal statutes that forbid intimidation of voters. The senators requested a criminal investigation of Americans United. (See "The Helms Witch Hunt Project," September 1999 Church & State.)

In a July 2 letter to Reno, the senators charged that Americans United may have "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process."

The senators were apparently referring to efforts undertaken by Americans United in 1996 and 1998 as a part of "Project Fair Play," a special program to educate churches about the proper role of religion in politics. In both years, Americans United sent educational materials to churches nationwide, advising them that Christian Coalition "voter guides" are partisan and that distributing them in church could result in revocation of tax-exempt status.

The materials were mailed, e-mailed, faxed and made available on the World Wide Web to thousands of houses of worship representing dozens of denominations. The mailing consisted of an eight-page document that explains tax law as it pertains to churches. The document, prepared by two Washington attorneys who specialize in issues relating to political activity by churches and other non-profit groups, included an introductory cover letter by Lynn.

This activity, according to Helms and the other senators, may have constituted an effort to intimidate voters.

The senators' gambit appeared to be legally groundless all along. While two sections of the U.S. Code do deal with harassment and intimidation of voters, they concern activities like threats of physical harm or economic retaliation, not legitimate voter education campaigns. The laws were put in place during the struggle for civil rights and were intended primarily to protect voting by African Americans and other minorities.

Americans United suspected that something other than a desire to ensure every American's access to the ballot box had motivated the senators (especially in the case of Helms, whose allies have used heavy-handed tactics to depress black voter turnout in his campaigns). Sure enough, it soon came to light that Helms and the others had filed the complaint just a few weeks after Christian Coalition President Robertson traveled to Washington to plot political strategy for the 2000 elections with the GOP Senate leadership last June.

Americans United maintains that the scheme to harass the organization was cooked up then and notes that shortly after the senators sent the letter to Reno, a staffer in Coverdell's office admitted to a reporter with Religion News Service that Americans United had been discussed during the June meeting. (She later claimed to have been mistaken.)

The Christian Coalition was quick to laud the senators' action. On July 19 the Robertson-led group issued a press release asserting that "The organization calling itself Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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."

Asked directly by Daily Tax Report if the Coalition had urged the senators to seek an investigation against Americans United, Coalition spokesman Chris Freund remained cagey, replying only, "We're not answering that right now."

But in the end the gambit failed miserably when the Justice Department rejected the overture. In a letter to Lynn dated Feb. 4, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Keeney wrote that the complaint against Americans United was deemed not worthy of a criminal investigation and said the matter has been dropped.

"[T]he two criminal statutes that were potentially involved...reach only threats of physical or economic harm that are communicated to voters to stimulate or deter them from registering to vote or voting in federal elections," Keeney wrote. "They do not reach the mere expression of opinions concerning the possible tax ramifications to organizations that engage such activities. For that reason, we declined to initiate a criminal investigation of the matter about which the Senators had complained."

Lynn welcomed the complete exoneration but added that more needs to be done. "Every single one of those senators owes Americans United an apology," he said. "With absolutely no evidence, these six men asked the top law enforcement official in the land to undertake a criminal investigation of my organization. This grotesque abuse of power should alarm every American."

Lynn added that Americans United will not be intimidated by Helms, his Senate allies or the Religious Right. "If the Christian Coalition and its political cronies thought they could harass and bully Americans United into dropping our efforts to educate churches about the perils of partisan political activity, they were wrong," the AU director said.

If anything, Lynn asserted, the attack on Americans United has only spurred the organization to redouble its efforts in this area. Later this year, Lynn said, Americans United will announce the details of an expanded national education campaign to remind churches to stay out of partisan politics and reject the Christian Coalition's duplicitous campaign materials.

Remarked Lynn, "With this full exoneration in hand, we will redouble our efforts during this election year."