Topeka The Rev. Jerry Johnston says building Overland Park's First Family Church kept him busy enough in recent years that he didn't feel he had time for Kansas politics.
But he says he and other pastors received a wake-up call this spring when the Kansas House rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have banned gay marriage and denied legal benefits associated with marriage to other domestic arrangements, such as civil unions.
He and dozens of other clergy are now part of a statewide effort to register 100,000 new voters and send them to the polls to protect what they call traditional values.
But their activities also attracted the notice of the Mainstream Coalition, a Johnson County group that says its biggest issue is keeping church and state separate. The coalition recently promised to send volunteers into churches to see that ministers do not violate federal laws governing the political activity of nonprofit groups.
Soon after, Atty. Gen. Phill Kline entered the fray over concerns, he said, that clergy or churchgoers might be intimidated into silence. He scheduled a seminar on what activity is permitted, with the goal of reassuring the church leaders they can become involved. His event is 1:30 p.m. Wednesday on the Johnson County Community College campus.
It's a conflict not confined to Kansas, according to groups on both sides. A debate over amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit gay marriage continues, and conservative Christians are an important part of President Bush's political base as he faces what's likely to be a close election.
"It's certainly predominate right now in Kansas, but it's also in other places," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel for the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla., group that recently complained of "scare tactics" directed toward clergy and churches.
Kline said in a recent interview that involvement in politics by churches and pastors was nothing new, citing as an example the civil rights movement and the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s.
Johnston said that in nearly three decades in the ministry, he had never seen fellow clergy as willing to work to change society. He is among 150 ministers involved in the effort to register new voters and educate them about where candidates stand on issues.
His church has posted a guide for other pastors on its Web site, and he is sponsoring a series of seminars on important issues. Founded in 1996, First Family now puts its membership at about 3,000 people.
"Failure of the marriage amendment in Kansas, no question, was a wake-up call," Johnston said during a telephone interview.
Nationally, Democrats have complained about efforts by President Bush's re-election campaign to galvanize supporters among church groups.
On the other side, the Liberty Counsel worries that groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are trying to block clergy from working in favor of the federal marriage amendment.
"Both parties are looking for ways to mobilize existing voters and register new ones," said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United. "It's a high-stakes election."
Generally, guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service to nonprofit groups -- posted on the federal agency's Web site -- say such organizations must not "devote a substantial part of their activities" to influencing legislation and must not "intervene" in a campaign for or against any candidate.
Yet clergy can endorse candidates, as individuals and outside of church functions. Churches also can publish voter guides, though IRS guidelines suggest the guides must avoid political bias. Candidates can speak during Sunday services, so long as all candidates in a race are offered a similar opportunity.
In the Kansas City metropolitan area, the Mainstream Coalition recently sent about 400 letters to area churches, designed to remind them of IRS guidelines.
Executive Director Caroline McKnight said how a church viewed the marriage debate or another political issue was "immaterial."
"Our core issue is the separation of church and state," she said. "What's significant to us is that the clergy is organizing."
Neither Kline nor Staver accepts that explanation. Kline notes the coalition has a political action committee that endorses candidates and makes political contributions -- something tax-exempt organizations cannot do under the federal tax code.
The attorney general plans to have Eric Melgren, the U.S. attorney for Kansas, and IRS representatives participate in his seminar.
"I thought it was appropriate for those who are responsible for enforcing the law to actually let people know what the law is," Kline said during a recent interview. "The rights that attach to those who are conservative also attach to those who are liberal."
McKnight said her group welcomes Kline's seminar, though she said the general public probably would benefit more than clergy, who tend to know the rules.
Johnston said he did not worry about having his church's activities monitored. In fact, he noted, the church even provides live broadcasts over the Internet.
"When you're not breaking the law, you have nothing to fear," he said.