A question of the law

lady justicePeter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times had a revealing article in Saturday's paper about a Washington conference sponsored by the Family Research Council. During the conference, conservative evangelicals talked about the importance of the November elections and said if Republicans are not elected, the country will go down the toilet. Well, they didn't say Republicans, but they did encourage people to support candidates who understand their values. The article has a very ominous tone. A major issue, as discussed in this post, is that the Internal Revenue Service is threatening churches' tax-exempt status because of political statements from their pulpits.

Wallsten skillfully ties the IRS issue to the conference, where Focus on the Family's James Dobson urged participants to use their pulpits to support candidates who share their socially conservative agenda. It was a much-needed connection, but Wallsten failed to finish the picture. Wallsten discusses the difference between voter guides and actual endorsements, and quotes church-state separationists, but more legal questions are raised than answered. Is Dobson encouraging the churches to act illegally?

Critics say Dobson and his allies are crossing the line and giving bad advice to churches. The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, mailed letters this week to 117,000 churches in 11 states warning them not to go along with voter registration drives and other activities.

"They are talking about a systematic effort to get churches involved in political activity," said Lynn, who attended the conference and met privately backstage with Dobson to debate the question. "They say this isn't partisan, but then they turn around and make it clear that their goal is to keep Republicans in power."

Friday's events showed that evangelicals intend to broaden their focus on issues that can motivate voters. Leaders framed the GOP's signature issue of terrorism as a matter of "protecting the family" and winning a war between Judeo-Christian traditions and Islamic extremism.

So is it illegal to hand out voter guides? Someone give Wallsten a legal brief on the matter so he can inform his readers. Last time I checked, it is not illegal [commenter Chip smartly points out that these rules can be easily accessed here]. One can have a legal opinion that voter guides are essentially endorsements, but that should be addressed in the article if it is indeed an issue.

In the American legal system there is a sense of finality in issues or at least the potential for finality. What have the courts and the lawmakers said? You can quote experts and political hacks all day long on the constitutionality, but that doesn't matter if an issue has been decided.

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