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Federal judge: Most Christian Coalition campaign activities were legal

The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON — The Christian Coalition is moving ahead with plans to distribute 75 million voter guides in the next election following an Aug. 2 federal court ruling that the activity did not illegally help Republican candidates.

The beleaguered, Virginia-based group — trying to rebound from a restructuring, staff defections and an IRS decision denying it tax-exempt status — plans to use churches and the Internet to distribute its scorecards for the 2000 campaign.

The Christian Coalition hopes to raise $21 million to fund its 2000 political activities, seeking 50,000 donors to give $20 a month.

"The stakes are so high," said Randy Tate, the coalition's senior vice president for government relations. "Not since 1980 has there been a chance to shift the national debate."

Those efforts received a boost from this week's decision by U.S. District Judge Joyce Green, who rejected assertions in a 1996 Federal Election Commission lawsuit that the coalition's voter guides and get-out-the-vote operations were partisan activities designed to aid Republican candidates and should be treated as contributions under federal law.

Green ruled in favor of the FEC on just two points — that the coalition in 1994 improperly assisted then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Iran-contra figure Oliver North, then the GOP Senate nominee in Virginia, and should pay a fine. The amount will be determined later.

The Christian Coalition vigorously fought the lawsuit, defending the voter guides it has distributed for years to churches on the Sunday before election days.

The group argued the guides were covered by free speech and did not specifically advocate a candidate's election or defeat, and thus should not be regulated as federal campaign contributions.

"These are nonpartisan and there's no coordination," said Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson. "Just because you tell a candidate you're going to distribute voter guides does not constitute coordination."

Robertson called Green's ruling "a major victory for free speech in this country."

Opponents of the coalition said the court decision was disappointing.

"Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition have slipped through a legal loophole," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The decision still provides plenty of evidence that the Christian Coalition is a hardball partisan political operation."

Officials at the FEC, a six-member commission that enforces federal campaign laws, declined comment.

Credited with helping the Republican Party win control of Congress in 1994, the Christian Coalition had run into rough times recently. The Internal Revenue Service ruled the group was not entitled to tax-exempt status, forcing the group to split into two entities. The decision, made last year but kept under wraps pending an appeal, was made public in June.

Under the reorganization plan, the Christian Coalition of Texas, a tax-exempt group, was renamed Christian Coalition of America and will publish the voter guides. A second group, Christian Coalition International, could engage in partisan activity, but no decision has been made on whether to do so, Tate said.

Robertson founded the Chesapeake, Va.-based coalition in the 1980s and built it into a significant voice within the GOP before turning over control of the organization a few years ago. He recently returned as the group's president.

The coalition hired eight new people to replace staffers who left, and Robertson wrote a $1 million check to the group in December 1997 to help reduce a $3 million debt.

"It's a speed bump on road to maximizing our impact in 2000," Tate said.


IRS strips Christian Coalition of tax-exempt status
Religious-rights group announces reorganization, says it will continue political involvement on behalf of pro-family activists.  06.11.99

Groups urge churches not to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides
Americans United, Interfaith Council say distribution of pamphlets would violate federal law exempting churches from paying taxes.  10.24.00