Americans United for Separation of Church and State today advised houses of worship to be extremely wary of supposedly “non-partisan” Religious Right voter guides, many of which are being issued this week just before the mid-term elections.
Americans United has examined many of these guides, which are being produced by a variety of organizations, and found them to be significantly flawed. The guides show bias and are obviously designed to encourage evangelicals to vote for Republican candidates. As such, any church that distributes them may be putting its tax-exempt status at risk.
“These guides are clearly partisan and deceptive,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Houses of worship should not be part of the Religious Right’s unethical and legally problematic campaign to intervene in elections.”
Lynn pointed to the following examples:
• Christian Coalition of America voter guides continue to oversimplify complex issues by saying a candidate “Supports” or “Opposes” selected stands on issues. The Internal Revenue Service warns about this type of language. The IRS Web site lists the following language as a “key consideration” for determining if a guide is biased: “If the candidate is given limited choices for an answer to a question (e.g., yes/no, support/oppose), whether the candidate is also given a reasonable opportunity to explain his position in his own words and that explanation is included in the voter guide.”
• Christian Coalition voter guides also employ a deceptive tactic for candidates who did not respond to the group’s surveys. The CC puts "No Response" for some issues but lists "Supports" or "Opposes" for others, the latter supposedly being determined by a candidate’s public statements. Use of this device makes it appear to the casual reader that the candidates responded to some questions on the CC questionnaire when, in fact, they answered none. (In a few cases, the Coalition lists disfavored candidates as having "no response" to any of the issues on the page, thus suggesting that candidates are ducking controversial issues.)
• A guide published by the Association of Maryland Families lists candidates’ responses to 20 questions, but some of the questions dealing with the most controversial social issues are worded in a manner that steers evangelical voters toward Republican candidates. Questions include “Should the public school curriculum teach homosexuality as an acceptable, healthy lifestyle?” and “Should the procedure known as partial birth abortion be banned in the United States, except in cases in which the mother’s life is in danger?” Candidates are expected to answer “Yes,” “No” or “Undecided” to these complex issues.
In addition, the Association of Maryland Families, which is affiliated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, adds a line to its guide reading, “This Educational Voter Guide meets the 501c3 requirements and is permissible for distribution in churches….” This implies that the guide has received some type of official stamp of approval from the IRS, which is simply not true.
• A guide produced by the Michigan Family Forum includes candidates’ endorsements by a selection of political action committees (PACs). PACs may legally endorse candidates, but houses of worship may not. The guide points out that certain Democratic candidates have been endorsed by abortion-rights and gay-rights PACs, while Republicans have been backed by anti-abortion or “family values” PACs.
An additional problem, Lynn noted, is that some of the organizations producing these guides have a different type of tax-exempt status than churches. The Christian Coalition, for example, is a 501(c)(4) organization that may legally endorse candidates and intervene in partisan elections up to a certain point. Houses of worship, as 501(c)(3) groups, may do neither.
Lynn reminded pastors that if a church intervenes in a campaign by distributing a biased voter guide, it is the church, not the group that produced the guide, that will have to deal with the IRS.
“Pastors should be very wary of guides produced by outside organizations,” Lynn said. “Some groups are simply interested in getting candidates elected and do not care if they put a church in jeopardy along the way.”
Americans United maintains a special Web site, www.projectfairplay.org, that contains information about church politicking and allows visitors to report suspected abuses. Flagrant violations of federal tax law by religious organizations are submitted to the IRS for investigation.
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.