Ohio Churches Accused of Pro-GOP Political Bias
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Evangelical Christians have become a powerful political force in this country, especially in Ohio. They helped pass the state's anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, and they helped win Ohio for President Bush, propelling him into a second term.
Now, some religious leaders who don't like the evangelical political movement are fighting back, their weapon, the Internal Revenue Service. Bill Cohen of Ohio Public Radio prepared this report.
Pastor ROD PARSLEY (World Harvest Church, Ohio): We are here launching a verifiable revolution would you shout it with me? With God all things are possible.
BILL COHEN (Reporter, Ohio Public Radio): TV Evangelist Rod Parsley has been the rising star of the evangelical political movement. With his 12,000 member World Harvest Church near Columbus, Parsley has launched new projects; one goal, registering 400,000 new voters. Meanwhile an ally church is heading up a parallel drive, it calls for hundreds of so called patriot pastors to register new voters in churches and pass out four million voter guides to quote "shine a light for godly candidates". Evangelical leaders believe Republican Governor Candidate Ken Blackwell shines the brightest. Parsley often praises him.
Pastor PARSLEY: He's a man of great conviction, consistently standing for family, life, marriage and faith.
Mr. COHEN: Pastor Parsley's been careful not to directly endorse Blackwell for Governor, but 31 other Clergies still claim the two churches have gotten too involved in partisan politics thereby violating conditions of their tax exempt status. Rabbi Harold Berman and Jack Seville of the United Church of Christ are among those who have filed a complaint with the IRS.
Unidentified Man: The issue very simply is the separation of church and state. I recall one quote, saying that they were looking for a hundred thousand converts to Christ, but 400,000 voters. The mere mathematics of that tells me that this is more political than it is religious.
Mr. COHEN: David Ball is an attorney for the critics who include Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Unitarians and others.
Mr. DAVID BALL (Attorney): Implied endorsement is just as prohibited as coming right out and saying we want this person. And what we see these churches doing is lots and lots of ways to send a signal.
Mr. COHEN: One signal he says is Blackwell being the only one of three big name Republican hopefuls to appear at several evangelical rallies. Trumpeting traditional marriage, school prayer and a ban on abortion. Attorney Ball says that's just one example of what he calls textbook violations by the evangelicals turned politicos. He claims they're also using rigged voter registration inside churches aimed at only conservative voters. Plus biased voter education materials favoring Candidate Blackwell.
Mr. BALL: So if the IRS gets steamed about that it would not surprise me that they might revoke tax-exempt status, tax these churches for the years that are in question.
Mr. COHEN: Pastor Parsley insists his church and its voter involvement off chutes have obeyed all the IRS rules. He says at their events all candidates for Governor have been invited. He adds, his voter outreach activists don't ask for a political affiliation when they register people to vote. In churches, at colleges, and at community festivals. And Parsley proclaims the IRS complaint won't prompt any changes in his projects because they're pushing values not candidates.
Pastor PARSLEY: It is my spiritual and moral obligation to lead my congregation. These issues are not political, but rather spiritual as they have their basis in biblical truth, and we simply will not be silenced by the tactics of fear.
Mr. COHEN: While the IRS looks at these charges against conservative churches in Ohio, it's already investigating a liberal church in California after its minister gave an anti-war sermon. For NPR News, I'm Bill Cohen in Columbus.
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