Whatever one thinks of the Christian Coalition, the lawsuit against the conservative group filed by the bipartisan Federal Election Commission (FEC) seems overtly political. Especially so since it takes place on the eve of presidential and congressional elections, and the original complaints were filed by the Democratic National Committee and the Virginia Democratic Party.
The FEC says the coalition has violated federal campaign-finance and tax laws by directly supporting Republican candidates and distributing leaflets and voter's guides. It says the coalition's efforts should have been reported as independent expenditures or in-kind contributions to the GOP candidates in question.
Labor unions, chambers of commerce, environmental organizations, and other groups have long distributed voter guides and other literature that all but endorsed one party or candidate over another (Hint: The AFL-CIO doesn't endorse many Republicans and most chambers of commerce don't support Democrats). A leader of a major national environmental group sat in our offices recently and explained how the organization helped defeat Republican Gordon Smith in last winter's Oregon Senate election. Planned Parenthood recently ran full-page ads in The New York Times in a thinly veiled attack on the GOP.
Some of these groups do organize political-action committees (PACs) that make their spending public and that hew to campaign-spending limits. But the Christian Coalition argues that its activities are "educational," not "political," and therefore both tax-exempt and free of campaign-spending rules. Its activities are financed by voluntary contributions; the AFL-CIO's are financed by compulsory union dues. The AFL-CIO is currently spending $35 million on radio ads attacking specific House Republicans by name in their home districts. It would seem only logical for the FEC to apply the same standards to both groups' "educational" campaigns.
It's one thing to separate church and state; to separate politics and religion is something else. Religious leaders have tried (not always successfully) to tell their congregants how to vote ever since there have been pulpits and ballot boxes. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press, 60 percent of those polled said their clergy speak out on abortion, 56 percent cited prayer in schools, and 1 in 5 said their clergy speak out on candidates and elections. The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have spoken out many times on such issues as abortion, birth control, and even nuclear-weapons strategy. Are these actions now to be considered illegal? Press releases from the mainstream Protestant/Eastern Orthodox National Council of Churches often parallel Democratic Party issue papers. Must the council now form a PAC? The complaint against the Christian Coalition seems to be the degree of organization and the amount of money it has brought to its efforts.
The lawsuit will eventually end in a court - probably the Supreme Court - drawing a line between what is and isn't acceptable.
This case raises serious issues of freedom of speech and association. It will be interesting to hear why a Christian Coalition voter's guide is "partisan" and similar guides backing other partisan views are not. In the meantime, Congress ought to consider barring the FEC from filing such lawsuits during election years.