Dec 14, 2001

Religious intervention in statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia failed yesterday, when voters rejected candidates supported by the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

In Virginia, two Religious Right organizations produced "voter guides" on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley and other GOP nominees. TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition claimed it distributed over a million guides, while American Renewal (the political arm of the Family Research Council) claimed to have distributed almost a million guides as well.

In New Jersey, the Christian Coalition also distributed over a million voter guides stacked to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Brett Schundler. In addition, Schundler benefited from the implicit endorsement of the state's Catholic bishops, who issued an Oct. 22 "teaching" urging Catholic voters to make abortion restrictions a priority issue.

Despite the intervention by religious leaders, Earley and Schundler failed in their bids for public office.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said there are lessons to be learned from the election results.

"The 2001 elections demonstrated that voters make up their own minds about candidates and don't respond to religious directives," said AU's Lynn. "One can only hope these groups realize that Americans don't want our religious communities herded into partisan voting blocs."

Lynn noted that the results in Virginia are particularly stinging for the Religious Right because the state is home to TV preachers such as Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In addition to Coalition voter guides, Robertson contributed at least $35,000 to Republican Earley's campaign.

Earley, a long-time Religious Right ally, has been especially helpful to Robertson. While serving as attorney general, Early declined to prosecute Robertson for fraud when the TV preacher solicited donations for a relief plane actually being used for a diamond-mining operation in Africa.

AU's Lynn said he believes an increasing number of churches are refusing to hand out the Religious Right voter guides. The week before the guides were supposed to be distributed by houses of worship, Americans United sent letters to Virginia churches, encouraging pastors to consider the legal and ethical consequences of distributing the slanted partisan campaign materials. (Federal tax law bars churches and other tax-exempt entities from endorsing political candidates.)

Lynn also noted the New Jersey election outcome was a blow to the Religious Right. Republican candidate Schundler has been a long-time favorite of the movement, taking a high-profile stance against abortion rights and church-state separation and favoring voucher aid to religious schools.

In addition to Coalition voter guides, Schundler also won support from the state's Catholic hierarchy. Archbishop John Myers and 10 other bishops issued a letter to the state's 3.3 million Catholics, urging them to "use their voting privilege to reflect a choice of candidates who respect and sustain the dignity of all human life," an implicit endorsement of Schundler.

(Myers is well known in the Catholic Church for his hardline approach to politics. While serving as bishop of Peoria, Ill., in 1990, he issued a pastoral letter saying it is "morally illicit" for Catholics to vote for candidates who disagree with the church's doctrine on abortion.)

The religious support for Schundler, however, failed to influence voters in the heavily Catholic state. Democrat Jim McGreevey easily won his statewide race, sailing to a 14 percent victory.

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.