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Christian Coalition Forum
Fuels Debate Over Partisanship

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 1997; Page B01

The leader of a recent Christian Coalition political training session in Fairfax County urged members to work against the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, Donald S. Beyer Jr. even though the group maintains that it does not endorse candidates.

State Del. Jay Katzen, a Fauquier County Republican invited by coalition leaders to help rally the group for the November elections, called Beyer, the lieutenant governor, a "dangerous opponent." He praised Gov. George Allen (R) and James S. Gilmore III, the GOP candidate for governor and former attorney general.

"Don Beyer has promised . . . to reverse everything that you elected me and George Allen and Jim Gilmore to achieve," Katzen told the activists, pacing next to a Christian Coalition banner.

The Fairfax session was the most recent example of how the coalition, based in Chesapeake, Va., is trying to energize Christians through seminars that analysts say focus on promoting Republicans and their initiatives. The group's efforts come as it is being investigated by federal officials who are questioning its push for tax-free status as a nonpartisan voter-information group.

The group, which also is fighting a Federal Election Commission lawsuit that accuses it of producing and distributing voters' guides that favor Republican candidates, maintains in its publications that it "does not advocate the election or defeat of any candidate and does not endorse any political party."

But analysts who have followed the coalition's political activities in Virginia say that Katzen's remarks, captured on a videotape provided to The Washington Post by a Democratic activist, show that the group is becoming bolder in trying to influence elections.

Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at American University who wrote a book about the religious right, said the Christian Coalition generally has been careful to focus on issues, and not specific candidates, in its public statements.

"Jay Katzen's remarks should put to rest the argument about whether the Christian Coalition is really an arm of the Republican Party," Rozell said. "This is so explicit, it's incredible."

The coalition is incorporated as a tax-exempt group, although the Internal Revenue Service continues to review the group's application for that status and has not given final approval. On last year's tax return, the group said its purpose was "to encourage active citizenship among people professing the Christian faith."

A Federal Election Commission spokesman would not comment on Katzen's remarks. An IRS spokesman said rules prohibit comment on individual cases but repeated that tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from working for or against parties or candidates.

No Democrat spoke at the Fairfax session, which drew about 50 activists to a Knights of Columbus hall on Aug 9. Jeb Wilkinson, executive director of the Christian Coalition's Virginia chapter, introduced Katzen.

Arne W. Owens, spokesman for the national Christian Coalition, said nothing was inappropriate about Katzen's remarks. He said such speakers are "sharing their views with our supporters."

"We don't endorse or advocate for or against any candidate for public office," Owens said. "That's against the law for an organization such as ours."

In an interview last week, Katzen said he didn't "recall drawing a distinction between the parties by name. It was a training seminar to talk about issues."

The Christian Coalition is trying to expand its clout despite the departure of its dynamic and media-savvy executive director, Ralph Reed, who became a political consultant earlier this month.

The group's founder, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, instructed the Christian Coalition's state leaders at a closed-door breakfast in Atlanta this month to unite behind a GOP candidate for president in 2000. He compared the coalition with the "Byrd machine" of conservative Democrats that once ran Virginia politics.

"I don't think at this time and juncture the Democrats are going to be able to take the White House unless we throw it away," Robertson said in the speech, which was secretly recorded and released by opponents. "We need to come together on somebody who reflects our values and has the stature to be president."

Owens, the Christian Coalition spokesman, said that "those were Pat Robertson's personal views."

The Fairfax workshop, one of four to be held throughout the state, is part of an unprecedented push by the coalition to influence a Virginia election. The effort will culminate the Sunday before the Nov. 4 election with the distribution of more than 1 million voter guides for the three statewide races governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and for House of Delegates contests.

Robertson, who lives in Virginia Beach, has given $50,000 to Gilmore's campaign and $35,000 to the GOP nominee for attorney general, state Sen. Mark L. Earley (Chesapeake).

The Christian Coalition also has many ties to the Republican Party of Virginia. Wilkinson is a former political director for the state GOP. The coalition's Virginia chairman, Donald W. Huffman, is a former Republican state chairman, and the state party's annual retreat is named for him. Huffman, a lawyer in Roanoke, declined to comment.

The coalition has declared today "Citizenship Sunday" and sent a letter to 2,000 Virginia pastors urging them to make an announcement from the pulpit encouraging voter registration, then pass out forms and collect them at the end of services.

Christian Coalition leaders hope to capitalize on an increasingly Republican state and a friendly political climate. In a Post poll of 808 Virginia adults this month, 52 percent of those interviewed said the religious right has the right amount or too little influence in state politics.

The coalition, which says it has 1.9 million supporters, was incorporated in 1989, after Robertson's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

Katzen, a lawyer, began his Fairfax speech by spoofing the coalition's critics with the jovial salutation, "Welcome, fellow zealots and religious fanatics and wackos."

He warned the activists not to fall for Beyer's "shaggy hair and his ready smile." He also told them to support Earley, noting that abortion rights supporters have gone to the courts to try to overturn the state's new parental notification restriction on abortions, legislation that Earley helped to devise. The law requires that the parents of a girl younger than 18 be told before she can get an abortion, unless a judge intervenes.

Katzen said that if Republicans overcome the Democrats' six-seat advantage in Virginia's House of Delegates, "we could be looking at parental consent," a measure requiring a parent's approval not just knowledge before a minor could get an abortion.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Katzen's remarks "an absolutely outrageous example of what frequently occurs in state Christian Coalition meetings."

"You would hear the same speech at a Gilmore rally," Lynn said. "They don't even bother to preserve the fig leaf."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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