By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006
The North Carolina Republican Party asked its members this week to send their church directories to the party, drawing furious protests from local and national religious leaders.
"Such a request is completely beyond the pale of what is acceptable," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
During the 2004 presidential race, the Bush-Cheney campaign sent a similar request to Republican activists across the country. It asked churchgoers not only to furnish church directories to the campaign, but also to use their churches as a base for political organizing.
The tactic was roundly condemned by religious leaders across the political spectrum, including conservative evangelical Christians. Ten professors of ethics at major seminaries and universities wrote a letter to President Bush in August 2004 asking him to "repudiate the actions of your re-election campaign," and calling on both parties to "respect the integrity of all houses of worship."
Officials of the Republican National Committee maintained that the tactic did not violate federal tax laws that prohibit churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for office, and they never formally renounced it. But Land said he thought the GOP had backed down.
"I heard nothing further about it, so my assumption was that it stopped, at least at the national level," he said.
Yesterday, the Greensboro News & Record reported that the North Carolina Republican Party was collecting church directories, and it quoted two local pastors as objecting to the practice. The Rev. Richard Byrd Jr. of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro said anyone who sent in a directory "would be betraying the trust of the membership," and the Rev. Ken Massey of the city's First Baptist Church said the request was "encroaching on sacred territory."
Chris Mears, the state party's political director, made the request in a Feb. 15 memo titled "The pew and the ballot box" that was sent by e-mail to "Registered Republicans in North Carolina."
Mears said the "Republican National Committee has completed a study on grass-roots activity that reveals that people who regularly attend church usually vote Republican when they vote."
"In light of this study's findings, it is imperative that we register, educate and get these potential voters from the pew to the ballot box. To do this we must know who these people are," the memo continued.
"I am requesting that you collect as many church directories as you can and send them to me in an effort to fully register, educate and energize North Carolina's congregations to vote in the 2006 elections," it said.
It added that the "North Carolina Republican Party holds your church's directory in strict confidence" and will not use it "to solicit church members for any other reason."
William Peaslee, the party's chief of staff, told the Greensboro newspaper that Republicans also gather lists of gun owners and military families. "In doing voter registration, you always go to where you base is," he said. Peaslee did not return messages from The Washington Post yesterday.