FEC says Christian Coalition
Improperly Aiding GOP
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a lawsuit raising questions about the mixing of religion and politics, the government Tuesday charged the Christian Coalition with improperly assisting Republican candidates through its voter guides and other activities.
The group spent thousands of dollars to promote the candidacies of figures such as former President Bush, Sen. Jesse Helms, Senate candidate Oliver North and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Federal Election Commission charged in a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court.
Any action on the lawsuit likely will come too late to directly affect this year's elections. But some coalition critics said the government's action could discourage churches from distributing the group's voter guides in November. Churches can lose their tax exemption if they engage in partisan activity.
"The evidence shows everyone that this group is a hardball political operation that has been cloaking itself in religion," said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Now the cloak is starting to unravel."
Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed called the suit "totally baseless" and said he was confi dent the courts "will affirm that people of faith have every right to be involved as citizens and voters."
The commission charged that the Christian Coalition distributed voter guides, identified Republican voters and used mail and telephone banks to get them to the polls in federal elections in 1990, 1992 and 1994 -- all with partisan intentions. The FEC also said the coalition had used corporate funds on behalf of Republicans.
Such activities amount to "express advocacy" for particular candidates and legally should have been either reported as independent political expenditures or as in-kind contributions to the candidates, the FEC argued.
The voter guides compare candidates in state, local and federal races on a series of issues the group deems important. The coalition plans to distribute more than 60 million this year.
The suit asks the court to impose fines that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to prevent further use of corporate money to promote candidates and to force the coalition to disclose the money it spends on politics.
University of Texas at Austin law Professor Doug Laycock, a prominent church and state scholar, predicted the suit would be an important case and a very interesting one.
"The coalition can't report this stuff because it's a tax-exempt organization and can't devote a substantial portion of its revenue to political use. They contend it's nonpartisan and educational in nature," Laycock said.
The government also says organizations can't coordinate political speeches with their candidates, he said.
"The government has two sets of guidelines, and both are quite vague. When does a speech count as an endorsement and when is it just a comment on issues? What's coordinated and what's independently organized?" Laycock said.
"It's very hard to describe where the line is.
"The Christian Coalition is really pushing the envelope, seeing how far it can go without crossing the line. The courts will have to determine whether they've crossed it and whether the line is constitutional," he said.
The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, now claims 1.7 million members nationwide and has grown to be one of the most formidable forces in conservative politics.
Part of its strength comes from its tax-free status. The coalition is set up as what the tax code calls a "social welfare" group, meaning its primary purpose is promoting the public good, and not partisan politics.
The Internal Revenue Service has never ruled on whether the group meets the test for tax-free status, however, and officials said the FEC case could damage the coalition's claim.
"It is very important to their financial viability to have the non-profit status," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at American University and author of "Second Coming," a book about the Christian right in Virginia politics.
Because the Christian Coalition claims all of its activity is educational and non-partisan, it doesn't have to report where its money comes from or where it goes, and is not bound by federal spending limits that apply to political action committees. In 1994, the last year for which figures are publicly available, the . group raised $21 million in donations. "I'm not optimistic the FEC will prevail," said Larry Sabato, a political Scientist who has studied the coalition's activities. He noted that recent court decicions had gone against the agency.
Express-News Religion Writer J. Michael Parker contributed to this report.
Oregon Cross Finally
Victory for First Amendment
by Conrad Goeringer and Kevin Courcey
from AANEWS by American Atheists
June 14, 1997
It was one day short of infamous Friday the 13th, but it turned out to be a good day for state-church separation in America, and in Eugene, Oregon. Like a scene out of "The Ten Commandments," the sky darkened and rain poured down as work crews moved in heavy equipment and began hammering away at the base of the 51-foot-high Skinner's Butte Cross which has sat on public land since its construction in 1964. Thus ends at least one chapter in the contemporary "culture war" saga which has divided Eugene citizens -- and much of the nation -- over the issue of government endorsement of religion. Other stories are being written, though, as battles over public religious monuments wind their way through the courts. Officials in San Francisco are still trying to salvage the Mt. Davidson cross which, like its counterpart on Skinner's Butte, sits on public land. In Hawaii, another battle looms as State American Atheists Director Mitch Kahle prepares to take his case to court to force the removal of the enormous Kolekole Pass cross, erected at a U.S. Army base, as a center for Easter religious worship.
In Eugene, though, it was an atmosphere blending pugnacious resistance and anticipation before the final denouement. A Vietnam veteran showed up with a shotgun tied under his chin and his trigger finger taped to at the ready; he warned workers "You ain't taking this cross down today." Police talked him out of a suicidal last act, but as the Eugene Register-Guard noted, "The possibility of blood attracted TV reporters ... sure harbingers of doom ... for a vulture's eye view of the proceedings." At 4 p.m. the cross was hefted free of its base, then transported to a new resting place at Eugene Bible College. There it is to be cleaned, and the neon-tube lighting inside repaired before it is re-positioned on a slope above the main school building.
Opponents of the removal made a last-ditch legal effort, when American Legion Post No. 3 of Eugene filed a challenge with the U.S. Supreme Court. But then a Lane County Circuit judge refused to interfere and issue a stay pending the high court appeal -- and the order to remove the cross remained in force.
It was the decision of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last August that sealed the fate of the Eugene cross, as well as the Mt. Davidson cross in San Francisco.
Over a period of three decades, private individuals and religious groups had erected a series of wooden crosses on land designated a public park located around Skinner's Butte, a rise north of the downtown business district. In 1964, a private group erected a more permanent steel and concrete structure at the crest of the butte, fifty-one feet high and inset with neon tubing. The city issued a retroactive permit for the construction and electrical work.
Five years later, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the cross on public land violated both the state and federal Constitutions since "it was erected with a religious purpose and created the inference of official endorsement of Christianity," as noted later in the Ninth Circuit ruling. In 1970, two events occurred which significantly complicated the state-church separation issues involved.
First, the City of Eugene began the practice of illuminating the cross during the Christmas and Thanksgiving seasons, and on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. And on May 26, 1970, a charter amendment election was held and Eugene voters agreed to designate the Skinner's Butte cross a "war memorial." A bronze plaque was placed at the base of the cross, and the Eugene City Charter altered to declare that the "concrete cross on the south slope of the butte shall remain at that location and in that form as property of the city and is hereby dedicated as a memorial to the veterans of all wars in which the United States has participated."
Following that, the individuals who had erected the permanent cross in 1964 -- including American Legion Post Number 3 and Eugene Sand & Gravel moved to have the Oregon State Supreme Court decision (Lowe v. City of Eugene) set aside; the court agreed citing the alleged "changed circumstances." Presumably, the cross was no longer a religious symbol but a war monument that was said to pass constitutional muster. In 1976, the cross survived another constitutional challenge as the Oregon State Supreme Court again ruled that the purpose of the cross was secular, not an attempt to advance a particular religious belief.
In 1991, a group known as Separation of Church and State Committee filed a lawsuit in the U.S District Court arguing that the Skinner's Butte cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Federal Judge Michael Hogan ruled against the group, but in August, 1996, that decision was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Circuit Court noted that "The fifty-one-foot Latin cross located in a public park ... represents governmental endorsement of Christianity. The maintenance of the cross in a public park by the City of Eugene may reasonable be perceived as providing official approval of one religious faith over others." Justices also quoted from the case of Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU where Justice Blackmun wrote:
"Whatever else the Establishment Clause may mean (and we have held it to mean no official preference even for religion over non religion) ... it certainly means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions)."
As for the argument that the cross was no longer a religious symbol, but instead a war monument made so by public election, the District Court observed that:
"There is no question that the Latin cross is a symbol of Christianity, and that its placement on public land by the City of Eugene violates the Establishment Clause. Because the cross may reasonably be perceived as governmental endorsement of Christianity, the City of Eugene has impermissibly breached the First Amendment's 'wall of separation' between church and state."
Quoted in historical support for that claim was Thomas Jefferson's famous January 2, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the Founder declared that the "act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof'...built a wall of separation between church and state."
In December, 1996, the U.S Supreme Court announced that it would not hear an appeal of the Circuit Court decision; that ruling was based upon the fact that apparently the plaintiffs had missed a filing deadline by 12 minutes. The City of Eugene had decided not to intervene further in the case, citing limited resources, but that move had not prevented American Legion Post Number 3 from making a last-minute bid to have the Skinner's Butte cross declared a "war monument."
The particulars of the Eugene cross story are filled with example of irony and mixed sentiments about the three decades of controversy. On site while the cross was being removed was Kevin Alltucker of Eugene Sand & Gravel Company. His father, company owner John Alltucker had promised to remove the cross at no cost the city after the legal battles had ended. John Alltucker was one of those who had erected the cross atop the butte back in 1964.
On the other side of the issue, there's an attorney and former congressman named Charles Porter who led the legal crusade against the Skinner's Butte cross. Ironically, he is a religious man. Porter mused to the Register-Guard yesterday, "I'm for the cross. I'm a Christian. It's an important symbol, one I cherish ... What I'm against is government favoring one religion over another."
A lot of bitterness still remains, and maybe the chapter about the Skinner's Butte cross shouldn't -- and won't -- be closed. There is yet another appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court, and legislation pending in the U.S. Congress could mean that someday soon, the 51-foot cross could be back on public land in Eugene, or a new religious monument built in its place. In the meantime, the removal of the cross "sends a message" south to San Francisco, where city and religious leaders are still scrambling to find a way to avoid the court's ruling which declares the giant Mt. Davidson cross a violation of state-church separation. The message also goes to Hawaii, where the U.S. Army has refused to dismantle the Kolekole Pass cross, and faces a tough legal challenge from separationist Mitch Kahle and others.
In Eugene, for now at least, the First Amendment and its "wall
of separation" have managed to survive.
Reasons to Fear
the Religious Right
by Rita Spillenger,
Executive Director, ACLU of Arkansas
For years the editors of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette have been trying to convince their readers that the Religious Right was a figment of the ACLU's imagination. At last, Rex Nelson and Paul Greenberg are ready to admit it exists.
In "Who's afraid of the Christian Coalition," Greenberg analyzes the response of members of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance to the CC's "Contract with the American Family." In his view, these men are captives of their own fear; they are men who, despite their titles (Rabbi, Reverend, etc.), are not interested in "spiritual but temporal power" -- all because they are perturbed by the growing influence of the Christian Coalition and the Religious Right.
In his capacity as Vice Apologist for the Christian Coalition, Greenberg asserts that people fear the Religious Right because they don't want morality and religion to have a place in public discourse. Life would be so much more harmonious if only we were all more guided by the Spirit, by morality, Greenberg preaches -- and then goes on to berate the "kindly souls [read "morons"] who think religion-in-politics is something new in American society." (I wonder if it is also the Spirit that inspires Greenberg to describe these clergymen as "a bunch of soreheads opposed to any and all attempts to introduce moral questions into public discourse.")
This is a straw man of the most familiar type. Most people are well aware that it is impossible to divorce public policy from moral questions. Look at civil rights legislation and anti-poverty policies. This country was based on the moral principle that all religious and moral precepts can be part of the process. The result is a great system: a set of policies guided by consensus on those values we share, like honesty, liberty, responsibility, and so on. It's not easy to find that consensus, but we try. Most of us value family; but when we get to the details, like whether or not to teach public school kids about condoms, we clearly have different ideas -- different morals -- about how best to serve the family.
The most effective lie of the last two decades is that the Religious Right has a monopoly on morality. Can it be true that no one else is interested in doing the right thing? What is supposed to motivate the people who fight all their lives for the poor, minorities, and the elderly? Greed, maybe? Or lust?
The truth is that most people have values -- as a nation our job is to find the common ground. Almost everyone agrees that killing is wrong; not everyone agrees that state executions are. So we compromise, and compromise involves making rational arguments and providing evidence for your point of view. In a diverse culture like ours you cannot say, "Girls should become housewives because God says so," and expect laws to be changed accordingly. Or rather, you can say so, but it is naive to think that that suffices as a political argument. Since we come together with different ideas about God, anyone who wants to be taken seriously, as the Religious Right says it does, must speak in a language we all share.
Come on Paul, people aren't afraid of the Religious Right because they fear the use of morality in public discourse. People are afraid of them because their value-system seems to depend on imposing their morality on other people.
What makes me think so? Forget for a moment what the Religious Right says it wants; let's take a look at what its leaders have actually said and done:
The Religious Right have been working assiduously and successfully to remove books and ideas they don't like from libraries and classrooms. They call this "local control of the schools." They use charges like "Satanic," "obscene" and "humanistic" to "protect" students from works like Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men. The Religious Right say they believe in the Constitution but insist that America has gone astray from its purpose: to be a Christian nation. "The Constitution is a marvelous document for Christians and Jews," said Pat Robertson, "but a dangerous one for non-Christians and atheists." Pat Buchanan commented, "Our [Anglo-American] culture is superior because our religion is Christianity and that is the truth that makes men free." The Religious Right are blatantly hostile toward other religions and cultures, and even toward other Christian denominations. Pat Robertson once compared Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians to "the spirit of the Anti-Christ"; he can love them all, he said, but he doesn't "have to be nice to them." And Robertson's Christian American magazine gave this explanation for the oppression and hatred suffered by Jews throughout history: "The New Testament reveals that Jews 'both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men' (I. Thess. 2:15). History records the terrible sufferings the Jewish people have experienced as a result" (my emphasis).
Most Americans see these actions and this rhetoric as divisive, repressive, and even hateful; certainly they are contrary to the fundamental American traditions of tolerance, liberty and equality.
On top of everything else, the Religious Right gripes about being left out of the democratic process, while at the same time not openly admitting what its agenda is, or which candidates it is running for office. CC Executive Director Ralph Reed actually boasts about how his operatives prefer to "move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night." That most Americans have sense to distrust such a group speaks well of native skepticism.
Greenberg feels good about The New Ralph Reed, who he claims is "sensitive to the secular culture"; but it's hard to believe that much has changed about a man who once said, "What Christians have got to do is to take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time and one state at a time.... I honestly believe that in my lifetime we will see a country once again governed by Christians ... and Christian values."
Perhaps Greenberg's greatest error, though, is likening the current marginalism of the Religious Right to the ostracization of the warriors of the civil rights movement, many of them religious leaders who risked everything to take a stand when it was vitally important to do so. Very tricky Mr. Greenberg, but you can't fool us. We know the difference between valiant heroes striving for social justice and people who want to deny rights to those who offend their personal moral sensability. We know the difference between people with "traditional" values, and people who want to tell other people how to live their lives. And lastly, we know the difference between rational ideas and kooky ones. The Religious Right attributes the rising divorce rate to a Supreme Court decision on school-sponsored prayers, and wonder why they are not taken seriously? It isn't we who have marginalized them -- they have marginalized themselves.
Who are "The Religious Right"? It's not every Christian, and not every fundamentalist Christian. It's not everyone who cares about family values, but someone who wants to impose his or her view of the family on everyone else. It's not someone who wants religious liberty, but someone for whom freedom of religion means having their religion dominate the social and political scene. It's not someone who wants to see morality play a part in public discourse. It's someone who thinks American law should be dictated by their morality alone.
So, as with groups like the KKK and certain militia movements, we Americans
will always respect the Religious Right's legitimate place at the democratic
table. In fact most Americans will insist that the Religious Right have
their say, make their marches, run their candidates for office. And, if
we're smart, we will learn from them what we can. But we will continue
to be wary of the Religious Right, for what distinguishes most Americans
from this group is that, while we acknowledge a place for its members at
the table, they surely wouldn't do the same for most of us.