Archive for Sunday, July 18, 2004

K.C. group on lookout for politics in pulpits

Volunteers monitor religious services for adherence to federal tax guidelines

July 18, 2004


— A recent Sunday found Tina Kolm paying particularly close attention to a church sermon more conservative than what she typically hears when she's at her usual Unitarian Universalist service.

Kolm departed from her usual church to visit another church where the sermon included a few minutes about the importance of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Kolm is one of about 100 volunteers for the Mainstream Coalition, a group monitoring pastors' and churches' political activities. The coalition, based in the Kansas City suburb of Johnson County, says it wants to see that clergy adhere to federal tax guidelines restricting political activity by nonprofit groups.

The coalition's decision last month to send volunteers into churches ignited an intense debate and put suburbs in the Kansas City area at the center of a national battle over religion and politics.

Kolm, a 47-year-old mother of two from Prairie Village, said keeping church and state separate was important to her. She said she didn't want one religious denomination defining marriage, or setting other social policy, for everyone.

"What it's all about to me is denying some people's rights," she said.

Closer scrutiny

Some clergy think the Mainstream Coalition's tactics are designed to keep them out of politics.

"Somebody is trying to act like Big Brother when there's no need for Big Brother," said the Rev. James Conard, assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Shawnee. "It's obviously an intent to intimidate."

Caroline McKnight talks with staff at the Mainstream Coalition in
Overland Park.

Caroline McKnight talks with staff at the Mainstream Coalition in Overland Park.

Nationally, churches already face scrutiny.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint this month with the Internal Revenue Service against the Rev. Jerry Falwell over a column endorsing President Bush on his ministries' Web site. Falwell said the group was waging a "scare-the-churches campaign."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said local chapters have sent volunteers to church services the Sunday before an election, but he said the Mainstream Coalition's efforts were more sustained.

"To my knowledge, there's no other state organization doing what the Mainstream Coalition is doing," said Lynn, himself a United Church of Christ minister.

And some conservatives are upset.

"These people will stop at nothing to silence churches," said Andrea Lafferty, executive values of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition, which says it represents 43,000 churches.

Same-sex marriage debate

The catalyst in Kansas is the debate over gay marriage. The national debate on the issue has kept tensions are high, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

As for Mainstream's tactics, Haynes said, "If we want to escalate a cultural war, this is a good way to do it."

But Mainstream's executive director, Caroline McKnight, said her organization was only trying to make sure that churches follow federal law.

According to IRS guidelines, churches cannot endorse individual candidates, and their pastors cannot use the pulpit or church newsletters to do so. The group has not yet filed any complaints, McKnight said.

But churches can compile voters guides -- though such guides are supposed to be unbiased. Pastors can preach on issues and, as individuals, endorse candidates.

McKnight said her group reacted to pastors being public -- "brazen," she argued -- about political activity.

In May, the Kansas House rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Dozens of pastors joined a statewide effort to register 100,000 new voters and elect sympathetic candidates.

McKnight said the IRS did not have the resources to monitor churches' activities, something an agency official confirmed during a seminar this week on political activity by nonprofit groups.

Lynn said complaints to the IRS were uncommon, though his group has filed 50 during the past decade. He said 19 of those complaints involved improper endorsements of Democratic candidates.

McKnight said Mainstream Coalition volunteers visited houses of worship of all types.

But conservative groups don't take such assurances at face value.

"Who deputized this group and its members to be thought police in Kansas -- or elsewhere?" said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, of Virginia Beach, Va.

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