When he returned to his suburban Cleveland church after a funeral one morning this week, the Rev. Mark Thomas was flabbergasted to find a stack of 300 Christian Coalition voter guides sitting by the front door with a cover letter instructing him to pass them out to parishioners this Sunday.
He had not asked for the guides, and certainly does not consider himself an adherent to Christian Coalition's views. "I have no idea why I got these, because I am actively in opposition to the use of the pulpit for any political persuasion," said Thomas, minister of Solan Community United Church of Christ and head of his denomination in Ohio.
In its most massive mobilization to get religious conservatives to the polls, the Christian Coalition says it is blanketing the nation this week with 46 million voter guides, more than enough for one of every three registered voters. The bulk will be distributed to churchgoers this Sunday, handed out at the door, placed on pews, or stapled inside church bulletins.
To meet their goal, Christian Coalition activists are dropping hundreds and sometimes thousands of the voter guides indiscriminately, in places where they are wanted and sometimes where they are not. In Ohio, Texas and Florida, thousands have landed in the hands of people like Thomas who are opposed to Coalition politics.
In other cases, ministers sympathetic to the Coalition say they have received the guides but are hesitant to pass out them out for fear of becoming a party to inappropriate partisan politicking. The Federal Election Commission filed suit against the Christian Coalition in July, charging the nonprofit group coordinates distribution of voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts to support Republican candidates. Some ministers are concerned they could jeopardize their churches' tax-exempt status by distributing the voter guides.
"Our church is a more conservative church and would probably agree with many of the things the Christian Coalition is trying to accomplish," said the Rev. Ronald R. Minor, general secretary of the Pentecostal Church of God, a denomination based in Joplin, Mo., with more than 1,200 churches. "But we're also very careful about not being partisan."
If pastors call him for advice about whether they should pass out the voter guides, Minor said, "I wouldn't tell them not to do it, but at the same time I wouldn't want to overly encourage them to do it. We don't want to be construed as being political."
The Christian Coalition tried to reassure nervous pastors this year by mailing, with order forms for voter guides, a memorandum from Washington attorney Alan P. Dye telling them "pastors distributing these guides should have no concern that they may violate any provision of the Internal Revenue Code."
Those memos were followed by dueling memos from religious right watchdog groups such as People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warning that churches distributing the voters guides could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.
Catholic officials around the country received a memo last spring from the general counsel at the United States Catholic Conference warning parishes against using voters guides produced by outside organizations, and recommending they use only guides produced by the Catholic Church.
Despite this, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said 22,000 more churches had ordered voters guides this year than in 1994, bringing the number of churches distributing them to about 125,000. He attributed the increase to ministers and churchgoers outraged by a government attempt to "censor" politically active conservative Christians. "The FEC lawsuit has had no discernible impact whatsoever except in creating a backlash that has generated more support than ever," Reed said.
The IRS has never revoked a church's tax exemption for distributing a partisan voter guide, but does have several cases involving voter guides in process, said Marcus Owens, director of the IRS division on exempt organizations. "If you signal favoritism through wording" of a guide, that could be a violation, Owens said. "The test we use is, can a person who walks in off the street tell who the organization wants you to vote for."
The voter guides prepared by the Christian Coalition are typically one-page handouts listing about six "issues," and the candidates' positions, either "supports" or "opposes." Although the guides vary from one race to another, the issues featured nearly always include abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, the balanced budget amendment and tax cuts. To determine the candidates' positions, the coalition sends them questionnaires. If they do not respond, the coalition surmises their positions from voting records or public statements, and when that is not possible, "no response" is listed on the guide.
The coalition says its guides are "nonpartisan voter information," but some candidates have objected that the issues are phrased in a distorted shorthand designed to favor Republicans. In Colorado state house races, several Democratic candidates are listed as opposing "parental rights" and supporting that "schools teach the gay lifestyle." In Washington state, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is listed as opposed to "protecting private property rights," while the Republican is in support. And because the Christian Coalition does not release its guides until a few days before the elections, candidates have little time to complain.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said his organization would report to the IRS any church that passed out a blatantly biased voter guide. "There is a central ethical question here," Lynn said, "should churches be willing to bend or break the truth in the material they pass out in their own sanctuaries?" CAPTION: Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, says 22,000 more churches have ordered the voter guides this year than in 1994.