U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green's recent decision dismissing most of the charges in the Federal Election Commission's lawsuit against the Christian Coalition is disappointing, but it's important to keep the ruling in perspective.
This decision does not mean that the Christian Coalition has been absolved of all wrong-doing or that its activities, especially its voter guides, have received a stamp of approval from a federal court.
Christian Coalition leaders are telling pastors that the ruling means its guides are suitable for distribution in churches. This is a deliberate campaign of misinformation.
In fact, Judge Green's decision states that Coalition voter guides clearly favor some candidates over others. She absolved the Coalition of wrong-doing only because a 23-year-old Supreme Court precedent opened up loopholes in federal election law large enough for the group to slip through.
In her decision, Judge Green recounts in detail the Christian Coalition's lengthy record of involvement in numerous Republican campaigns, including President George Bush's 1992 race and Sen. Jesse Helms' 1990 campaign. The record is replete with examples of Coalition leaders Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson offering to help these candidates and working closely with their campaigns.
All of this would seem to be a violation of federal election law, which bars independent groups from "coordinating" with campaigns. Unfortunately, the law is in such a state of disarray that Judge Green said the Coalition's activities in most cases did not amount to a violation.
None of this changes the fact that the Coalition was denied tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service last June. This is the action that has relevance for churches.
Federal tax law is much stricter than federal election law. Under the IRS Code, houses of worship are absolutely barred from intervening--directly or indirectly--in any partisan campaign. Obviously, distributing "voter guides" that a federal judge concedes favor some candidates over others is intervention because the material indirectly urges a vote for one candidate and against another. Read in the proper light, Judge Green's decision actually works against the Christian Coalition.
But don't expect to hear that from Robertson or any of his lieutenants. They are determined to turn churches into cogs in the Christian Coalition's political machine. They don't seem to care if their efforts cause churches to suffer tax penalties.
The bottom line is that the Christian Coalition won a minor victory only because federal election law is so weak. The organization is still a hardball political operation. The organization is still as partisan as ever. The organization is still asking churches to do things that are of highly dubious legality and unethical to boot.
To every pastor in America, we say simply: When Christian Coalition activists come knocking with a stack of voter guides, tell them to hit the road. Law, decency and the principles of fair play demand nothing less.