WASHINGTON — How far can religious groups take their message into the partisan political arena without breaching the separation of church and state?
The question underlies a lawsuit brought this week against the Christian Coalition, the nation's most influential and largest evangelical organization.
The group, led by conservative leader Ralph Reed, is charged by a bipartisan commission with breaking federal laws by directly supporting GOP candidates and distributing partisan leaflets and voter guides - a violation of campaign-finance and tax laws for a nonprofit church-based group.
Coming on the eve of the Republican National Convention, the suit is drawing sharply different opinions among GOP moderates and conservatives.
But beyond the politics and rhetoric of the season is the larger issue of how far religious groups can go. Equally important for churches is a more practical question: How easily can a church lose its tax-exempt status if its preacher tells the congregation to vote Republican or Democrat?
Under current IRS laws, a church may not spend a substantial amount of its budget on political lobbying, and it is not allowed to spend anything for a specific candidate. Church groups have generally gotten around this rule by what is known as "implied endorsements," in which a minister or priest might invite a candidate to speak to a congregation, while not instructing the church how to vote.
"The Christian Coalition has been pushing the envelope about what you can and can't get away with without reporting your funds," says constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas. "This is a serious constitutional issue in an area where the law is vague."
Should the US government win its case against the Christian Coalition, the group would be prohibited from conducting partisan activities without reporting its funding and behavior. Moreover, the action could lead to a crackdown on churches that participate in partisan activity yet enjoy a tax-free status.
"Any church in America which distributes the Christian Coalition's tainted voters' guides risks losing its tax exemption," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Separationists are concerned that aggressive entanglements between church and state will lead to churches becoming little more than political machines - and even lead to distortions in the political process by huge amounts of unreported funding going to partisan causes under the cover of tax-exempt churches.
Financed by evangelist Pat Robertson, himself a former presidential candidate, the Christian Coalition is charged with illegally supporting GOP candidates such as Sen. Jesse Helms, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Oliver North. In the early 1990s, when the organization was in its infancy, leader Ralph Reed is known to have boasted in closed-door meetings that the group was instrumental in electing Senator Helms in his 1990 campaign.
Conservative Christian groups immediately attacked the FEC suit as a political act, singling out the Christian Coalition. One evangelical lobbyist noted a full-page ad in The New York Times this week by Planned Parenthood of New York City.
It asked readers to test their knowledge of the Republican Party platform on birth control. "You would have to be a dim bulb to read that as anything other than 'vote Democrat,' " says the lobbyist. "If nonprofits are not supposed to support candidates, why is this allowed?"