TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are using the tax-exempt legal divisions of their Religious Right empires to help support the interests of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush during vote recounts in Florida.
On Nov. 9, Robertson boasted on his "700 Club" program that Jay Sekulow, head of Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, had been sent to Florida to intervene in the legal wrangling over the ballot recount. The ACLJ has also announced its participation in a petition drive, urging that no one "undo the will of the people by undoing the election in Florida."
Meanwhile, Falwell's legal group, Liberty Counsel, is representing three Florida residents in a lawsuit to challenge the legality of manual vote recounts. Both Robertson's ACLJ and Falwell's Liberty Counsel are tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations, and are therefore legally required to be non-partisan.
After months of aggressive politicking on Bush's behalf during the Republican primaries and the general election, Robertson and Falwell are misusing their non-profit legal groups for partisan ends, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"The ACLJ and Liberty Counsel supposedly exist to protect religious freedom," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Unless Robertson and Falwell have decided to worship the Republican Party, I can't imagine how they justify getting involved in the controversy surrounding the Florida recount.
"Robertson and Falwell claim to be religious leaders, but their actions suggest they are first and foremost hardball politicians," Lynn added. "These two appear to have officially signed on as partisan operatives for the Bush campaign."
According to materials made available by the two Religious Right legal groups, Liberty Counsel describes itself as a "nonprofit religious civil liberties education and legal defense organization dedicated to preserve religious freedom." The ACLJ claims to be a "not-for-profit public interest law firm and educational organization dedicated to defending the rights of believers."
For AU's Lynn, Robertson, Falwell and these legal groups have forever damaged their credibility.
"I've followed Robertson's and Falwell's careers for years, and I'd say this might be the most blatant example of naked partisanship I've ever seen," Lynn said. "It will be impossible in the future for the lawyers at the ACLJ and Liberty Counsel to claim with a straight face that they're only interested in religious liberty."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.