IRS deals blow to Christian Coalition

The Christian Coalition, long a major force in American politics and religious conservative activism, has been dealt a major blow.

According to a published report, the Internal Revenue Service has denied the Cheseapeake, Va.-based organization federal tax-exempt status, a move that will likely limit its ability to keep playing a significant role in American elections.

The coalition's signature activity has been the distribution of millions of voter guides, sheets that list candidates' positions on issues important to religious conservatives. By denying the coalition its tax exemption, as reported yesterday in the St. Petersburg Times, the IRS has in essence ruled that the group's primary activity was political, not educational.

Individual churches, the vehicle for distribution of the guides, will now likely shy away from handing them out, to avoid any problems with the IRS themselves. "It's a devastating blow to the ability of [Christian Coalition President] Pat Robertson to politicize American churches," says Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a coalition opponent.

The Christian Coalition yesterday announced a major reorganization of its corporate structure and a new name, Christian Coalition International. The group said it had withdrawn its application for 501(c)4 tax status, and would have the freedom to endorse and make financial contributions to candidates.

The IRS declined comment.

Marshall Wittmann, a former lobbyist for the coalition, says a key question for the group will be how the IRS ruling affects its finances and fund-raising. Without 501(c)4 status, an application that was pending for 10 years, it will now be liable for back taxes. Moreover, fund-raising had already lagged. The IRS ruling could depress it further.

"The Christian Coalition has, in a sense, been a victim of its own success," says Mr. Wittmann, now at the Heritage Foundation. He says many Democrats, who once called coalition members extremists, now espouse some of their issues.

Still, moderate Republicans in Congress, struggling to steer their party away from such divisive issues as abortion and school prayer, can only be happy that the group's clout is fading.

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