Washington (CNSNews.com) - A coalition of pro-life groups announced it is launching a national drive to register eligible Christians to vote in the 2004 election. But a religious liberty organization warned that churches could jeopardize their tax-exempt status if they permit the coalition's pamphlets to be distributed at church locations.
In what they hope will be the first step to putting pro-life candidates into public office, pro-life groups announced Monday they will distribute flyers beginning Father's Day encouraging churchgoers to register to vote.
Voter registration drives that are non-partisan are completely consistent with the boundaries set by law for churches and tax-exempt organizations, Fr. Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, said at a press conference Monday.
"Our project does not aim at building up one or another particular party, nor is it aligned with the campaign of any particular candidate. Rather, it is rooted in the tradition of this nation that faith is not to be relegated to the private arena, but rather plays a key role in shaping public life," Pavone said.
Priests for Life has joined the Christian Coalition of America and the National Pro-life Religious Council to launch "National Christian Voter Registration Sundays" on Jun. 15, Sept. 7 and Nov. 9 in 2003 and Jan. 18, 2004, in a nationwide church liaison program.
Scott Wiggam, the national church liaison director with the Christian Coalition, said the numbers of voting Christians has risen since the beginning of the 1990s.
In 2000, 210 million Americans were eligible to vote; of those, 105 million voted. A little more than 50 million eligible voters identified as "born-again," "observant" or "evangelical" Christians, Wiggam said. Of those 50 million, only 15 million voted.
"Obviously...we've got a little work to do and a little ways to go," Wiggam said.
However, before the 1990s, the Christian population was voting at a lower percentage than the rest of the population. Today, they are voting at about the same rate, he said.
Several thousand activists will coordinate the voter registration drive at churches around the country. Along with printed guides, the Christian Coalition also sends out electronic voter guides. In 2000, the organization sent out 70 million voter guides, Wiggam said.
Kirk van der Swaagh, vice president of the National Pro-life Religious Council, said the coalition hopes eventually to see more pro-life candidates in public office.
"The Christian mandate to 'love our neighbor as ourselves,' so central to the church's understanding of our societal responsibilities, directs us to seek the election of those candidates whose policies and legislative commitments will best accord with the truth of Scripture and the traditions of the Christian church," he said.
Robert Boston, assistant director of communications with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said, however, that the material the coalition asks churches to distribute is biased in favor of certain candidates, usually conservative Republicans.
"The churches have a tax-exempt status that does not allow them to endorse or oppose candidates, so they should be very wary of handing out any material produced by organizations like the Christian Coalition or Priests for Life that are not unbiased. I think that can get a church in trouble," Boston said.
Boston added, however, that voter registration was a good thing.
"There's a lot that a house of worship can do in this area. They can educate voters about a candidate's stand; they can have voter forums where the candidates come in and present their views and ask questions...but they cannot endorse or oppose candidates or distribute material that does that, and they need to be aware of that," he said.
Pavone said that Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in the past had made unfounded accusations that the voter drive was tainted with politics, promising to monitor it closely and report violations to the Internal Revenue Service.
"There were no such reports made simply because there were no violations. I would expect that Barry Lynn has gotten to know us over these few years, and I would not be surprised if he again says, 'We're going to watch closely.'
"I welcome him to do so because the closer he watches, the more credibility we have because there will in fact not be any violations of the law," Pavone said.