In the News

Vying for the ‘Values Vote’


Since being declared the key to President Bush’s re-election in 2004, conservative Christian groups have enthusiastically embraced — indeed defined — the term “values voters.” In late September, four of the most prominent groups — the Family Research Council’s FRC Action, Focus on the Family Action, American Family Association Action, and Americans United to Preserve Marriage — convened their first “Values Voter Summit,” which attracted a constellation of social-conservative leaders, conservative commentators, Republican presidential hopefuls, and even White House press secretary Tony Snow.

But in a pre-emptive strike just days before the conservative confab in Washington, left-leaning progressive Christians launched their own “Voting Our Values” campaign challenging the ascendancy of the Religious Right and questioning the very notion of who values voters are and which values underpin their votes.

Progressive religious groups are rolling out voter guides as alternatives to the conservative Christian point of view, along with other initiatives to broaden and redefine the terms of the debate over religion in politics.

And with the IRS cracking down on partisan politicking by all tax-exempt organizations, left-leaning religious groups such as Catholics for a Free Choice, which favors abortion rights, as well as strictly secular organizations such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, are filing complaints against religious nonprofits — to date, mostly conservative groups — that they believe are crossing the line.

Religious activists on the right are pushing back, saying they are the targets of a larger campaign aimed at driving them out of the political process. “The last remaining politically correct bias is against people of faith,” said First Amendment lawyer James Bopp, who represents several Christian conservative and anti-abortion groups.

Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, counters that after decades of dominance, “the free ride churches have enjoyed is over and people aren’t happy about it.” The watchdog group has filed 57 complaints with the IRS since 1996 accusing churches and religious nonprofits of illegal electioneering, and stands ready to file more.

Although religious voter guides were once the sole province of the Christian Coalition, which pioneered their use in the 1980s, several socially conservative groups now put them out, most prominently the influential Focus on the Family and the affiliated Family Research Council. Council spokesman J.P. Duffy says that 30 of the 38 state “family policy councils” have 2006 guides, while the national groups will distribute about 200,000 copies of their congressional-vote scorecards.

Churches, faith-based groups, and other tax-exempt nonprofits are allowed to conduct nonpartisan voter-registration, voter-education, and get-out-the-vote drives, and can advocate their position on issues generally. But they are barred from supporting or opposing candidates for office.

After a surge in complaints of illegal partisan politicking by nonprofits in the last election, the IRS served notice it is stepping up enforcement this year. In its investigation of political activity by tax-exempt groups in 2004, the IRS investigated 110 cases and found violations in 70 of the 98 cases it has closed, 42 involving churches.

So far in the 2006 campaign, the IRS has logged more than 140 complaints and is pursuing 60, according to Steven Miller, the IRS commissioner for Tax Exempt and Government Entities. About 10 of those 60 cases concern churches, Miller said, while religious organizations may be among the 50 others being reviewed.

Americans United has not filed complaints against any faith-based voter guides this year, according to spokesman Boston. However, the liberal Washington-based group Catholics for a Free Choice has been busy, taking aim earlier this month at the conservative nonprofit Catholic Answers and its new political arm, Catholic Answers Action.

Catholics for a Free Choice complained that Catholic Answers’ 2004 guide broke the rules by listing just five issues that are “nonnegotiable” (abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage) and instructing Catholics not to vote for candidates who support them. The IRS says voter guides should cover “most major issues of interest to the entire electorate.”

Although the IRS is still investigating the 2004 complaint, Catholic Answers formed Catholic Answers Action at the beginning of this year to put out the 2006 guide. As a 501(c)(4), Catholic Answers Action can engage in some political activity, but donations to the group are not tax-deductible. Catholic Answers is a 501(c) (3) and therefore must abide by stricter standards for election-related activities, but donations to it are deductible.

This article originally appeared in the 28 October 2006 edition of the The National Journal.

Catholics for Choice