Copied from today's New York Times FYI Eric Grace ________________________________________

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Copied from today's New York Times FYI Eric Grace ______________________________________________________________________ copyright NYT By RICHARD L. BERKE WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Coalition on Tuesday, asserting that the nation's largest group of religious conservatives had acted illegally to promote several Republican candidates, including former President George Bush, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Jesse Helms and Oliver North. In a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court here, the election commission argued that the coalition's nonpartisan posture was a sham and that it had used voter guides, mailings and telephone banks to press for the election of particular Republican candidates in 1990, 1992 and 1994. The money the coalition channeled into these activities amounted to illegal donations, the commission said, and that should have been reported as independent expenditures or as in-kind contributions to those campaigns. In a statement, the Christian Coalition, founded by the evangelist Pat Robertson after his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, called the suit "totally baseless" and "frivolous." "We are absolutely and totally confident that we will be fully vindicated," said Ralph Reed, the group's executive director, "and the courts will affirm that people of faith have every right to be involved as citizens and voters." But it may be difficult for the coalition to dismiss the suit as politically driven because two Republicans joined two Democrats in voting on May 7 to sue. The Republicans were Lee Ann Elliott, the FEC chairwoman, and Joan D. Aikens. The six-member panel had one Republican vacancy, and one of its three Democrats was absent. "There was a majority of the commission that felt they had gone too far," Mrs. Elliott said in an interview, speaking of the coalition. "And we'll have to let the courts decide that now." She said the case "has some big issues in it" and predicted that it would eventually reach the Supreme Court. The suit is significant, not only because it involves the most influential organization of religious conservatives -- it reports 1.7 million members -- but also because of its timing, coming on the eve of the Republican National Convention, which opens Aug. 12 in San Diego. The coalition is expected to have a visible role at the gathering. The suit takes aim at the Christian Coalition's most effective organizing tool: the millions of voter guides it distributes before elections and lists candidates' records on a variety of issues. The coalition has long contended that the guides were carefully written to avoid any partisan tone. But with this action pending, churches may fear that they would risk their tax-exempt status by allowing the coalition to distribute the guides on church property. The dispute may also provide an important test in federal election law over the significance of an organization's coordination with a party or a candidate. The suit asserts that the voter guides do not have to advocate expressly the election or defeat of a candidate to be a problem; instead, it contends that the legal questions arise because the coalition coordinated the content and distribution of its voter guides so as to favor one candidate over another. The ultimate resolution of that matter could affect the relationships between candidates and other issue-advocacy groups of all political stripes, like the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The suit complicates the questions involving the Christian Coalition, which had already been under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service over whether its 1989 bid for tax-exempt status should be granted. The IRS could be influenced by the election commission. Both agencies have in the past eyed each other closely when dealing with overlapping cases. Other nonprofit organizations establish political action committees that take part in political activities. Those committees are required to make their spending public and to abide by federal spending and contribution limits. But the Christian Coalition argues that its activities are educational and not political, and it therefore does not follow the restrictions required of PACs. In its suit, the commission does not address the issue of whether the coalition's principal purpose is to engage in political activity, a matter that touches upon both tax law and election law. The suit asks the court to impose fines against the coalition that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to force the coalition to stop using its own money to promote candidates and to report related spending to help candidates. Mike Russell, the Christian Coalition's communications director, said Tuesday, "This is a completely baseless and legally threadbare attempt by a feckless federal agency to silence people of faith and deny them their First Amendment rights." But the suit was hailed by groups that promote the separation of church and state. "The Christian Coalition from day one has been a hardball political operation cloaked in religiosity," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan group. "The FEC action today rips aside that cloak." Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, said: "The FEC is recognizing the obvious: the Christian Coalition's deceptive voter guides and aggressive campaigns are designed to help elect right-wing Republicans to public office." To support its charge that the coalition was backing candidates, not just educating its followers, the commission cited a mailed package entitled "Reclaim America" that the coalition distributed to voters in the 1994 campaign, saying it had included a scorecard rating congressional candidates. The suit says: "The cover letter, signed by Pat Robertson, asserted that the enclosed scorecard would be an important tool for affecting the outcome of the upcoming elections. It stated: 'This SCORECARD will give America's Christian voters the facts they will need to distinguish between GOOD and MISGUIDED congressmen."' The suit also contends that the Christian Coalition, in "coordination, cooperation and/or consultation" with Bush's re-election campaign in 1992, spent money on identifying voters and getting them to the polls, as well as for the preparation and distribution of 28 million voter guides. In 1990, the commission asserts, the coalition coordinated with the re-election campaign of Helms, R-N.C., to distribute 750,000 voter guides in the state and make about 29,800 telephone calls in a get-out-the-vote effort. That same year, the suit said, the coalition coordinated with the National Republican Senatorial Committee to produce and distribute 5 million to 10 million voter guides to help Republican Senate candidates in seven states. The commission said that the Christian Coalition, based in Virginia Beach, Va., had made similar efforts to help North -- producing and distributing about 1.7 million voter guides -- in his unsuccessful drive in 1994 to defeat Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia. In addition, the suit says, the coalition made such efforts on behalf of Gingrich in his 1994 campaign in Georgia, for Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona in his 1994 campaign and for Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina in 1994. The suit cited Reed for appearing at a two-day conference in January 1992 at which he "expressly advocated the defeat" of Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., and failing to report the cost of the meeting as an independent expenditure against Williams. The commission's suit stemmed from a four-year investigation that was prompted by two complaints accusing the Christian Coalition of violating federal election laws. The first was filed in February 1992 by the Virginia Democratic Party; the second was filed by the Democratic National Committee in October 1992.

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