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Christian Coalition, foes claim victory in N.Y. lawsuit over voter guides

The Associated Press

03.26.99

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Like two exhausted boxers, both sides in a court case over the Christian Coalition of New York's involvement in elections have agreed to quit fighting. Each side is leaving the ring with arms raised in victory.

The 3-year-old case is being abandoned, under an agreement reached this week by the parties, before it ever quite reached the landmark status it might have attained.

At issue was whether the Christian Coalition, through the "voters' guides" many of its 37 local chapters distribute about political candidates, was engaging in electioneering that would make it a "political committee" under state law.

The Christian Coalition's materials involved the views of candidates in Albany-area elections on the group's tenets, including abortion, "traditional family values," "opposition to tyranny" and "faith in God," according to court papers.

The Christian Coalition said it was engaged only in "issue advocacy" because its materials for voters only laid out where candidates stood on issues dear to the group's members. Issue advocacy has been found by courts to be a protected activity under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Christian Coalition said it did not tell people who to vote for or against — activities the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is electioneering. Under state law, such activities would make the group a "political committee" and force it to file reports with the state Board of Elections revealing where it gets its money and how it spends it.

Forcing financial disclosure was the ultimate aim of the Coalition for a Fair Election, which sued the Christian Coalition in 1996. The complainants included Ruth Klepper, the longtime head of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood.

Klepper's group contended the Christian Coalition was using dubious claims of being nonpartisan to get around election laws prohibiting it, as a political committee, from donating more than $5,000 to individual candidates.

In the end, the two state courts that heard the slow-moving case gave each side some hope they would ultimately prevail, if they had the energy and resources to pursue the matter.

Both the state Supreme Court — New York's lowest state court —and its Appellate Division refused to dismiss the suit out of hand, as the Christian Coalition had asked. That was a sign that the Christian Coalition's opponents might have been able to get the case before a jury to argue about the alleged partisanship of Christian Coalition activities.

However, Christian Coalition lawyer Charles Kriss said the Appellate Division last week also gave its position a boost by ruling the coalition and other groups had an "unencumbered right" to engage in "issue advocacy" under state law.

"Once they have done that, that gives us an adequate measure of protection in the future from people trying to pursue claims," Kriss said.

And not only the Christian Coalition should care about the outcome of this case, according to Kriss.

"That ruling is of benefit to any group that engages in political discourse which does not include endorsing candidates," he said. "Clearly, it is of benefit to any such group irrespective of their political orientation."

The importance of the case to the Christian Coalition nationally was obvious. At several junctures, the National Right-to-Life lawyer James Bopp Jr. was flown in from Terre Haute, Ind., to argue before New York courts on behalf of the state Christian Coalition.

The lawyer for the Coalition for a Fair Election, Thomas Keefe, had a vastly different view of the decision to cease legal hostilities.

The Christian Coalition's partisan political activities — and he insists they are that — are no longer worth worrying about, he says.

"Now, the Christian Coalition nationally is on its last leg," Keefe argued. "To the extent that there is still a Christian Coalition in the state of New York, nobody pays attention to it. Even conservative Republicans run from the Christian Coalition."

Kriss says such talk is "awfully presumptuous."

"The organization nationally and on a statewide basis continues to function and is a viable force in the public arena," he said.

Jeff Baran, the executive director of the Christian Coalition statewide, dismissed talk of the demise of his group's political influence. He said the group counts about 100,000 members or participants in coalition activities.

His group's aim was to teach its members to participate in the political process, "not be afraid of it, not be intimidated by it."

"That's been our goal, to bring people of faith, our constituency, into a better working knowledge of the political process," Baran said. "We have done what we said we wanted to do, mobilize people to get out and get involved in the process."

Related:

  • Civil rights groups decry distribution of Christian Coalition's voter guides 11.3.98
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