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A well-organized spy network is fanning out to infiltrate what it thinks are some of the most dangerous places in Johnson County, Kan. The group isn't worried about terror cells or gang lairs. It's worried about church worship services.
Mainstream Coalition, a watchdog organization for issues relating to separation of church and state in Kansas and Missouri, sent nearly 100 volunteers to almost 100 churches across Johnson County beginning on a Sunday morning in July. The volunteers' mission: Go to the worship services, look and listen for any violations of federal rules governing church involvement in political endorsements, and report back to the coalition. The coalition provided a checklist of Internal Revenue Service rules for tax-exempt organizations and an evaluation form, which the volunteers filled out and mailed back in pre-stamped envelopes. The results so far: Churches aren't breaking the rules.
IRS rules state that pastors are not allowed to endorse specific political candidates from the pulpit by name, but they are allowed privately to endorse candidates. They may also promote voter registration from the pulpit and distribute voter guides in church, as long as the guides include information about all the candidates.
Jerry Johnston came up with the idea for the voter-registration drive last spring. The senior pastor of the 3,000-member, nondenominational First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan., says he was dejected when the Kansas House voted against a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Mr. Johnston networked with other Kansas pastors to encourage Christians to vote: "The church is called to be salt and light. I don't know why so many of us don't vote."
The registration drive has two goals: Get church-goers to vote, and educate voters about candidates' stances on issues. Pastors use pulpit time to plug voter registration, and they give their congregations voter guides with candidate platforms. The effort has quickly caught on: Mr. Johnston says several thousand church-goers have registered to vote since the drive began.
Those thousands of new registrations caught the attention of Mainstream Coalition, prompting the group to organize church monitoring efforts and openly oppose the drive.
Executive Director Caroline McKnight says the coalition is primarily concerned about the pastors' involvement in the effort: "If it had been church members organizing it, we frankly wouldn't have cared." The involvement of pastors is problematic, Ms. McKnight contends, because of IRS rules that regulate the political activities of churches with tax-exempt status.
Mr. Johnston says his church and the churches involved in the voter-registration drive abide by the government's rules. He says he has promoted voter registration during church on many occasions, but that he has never endorsed a particular candidate: "I don't know any pastors in the group who would stand in the pulpit and endorse a specific candidate by name."
Ms. McKnight says Mainstream Coalition does not have evidence of any pastors endorsing a candidate by name, but says church leaders often imply their endorsement of certain candidates: "Ministers can make a message so transparent."
Ministers' messages should be transparent, according to Mr. Johnston: "We preach the biblical position on issues, and if folks vote according to their Christian faith, they'll often naturally vote for certain candidates."
Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline recently entered the fray, leading a seminar with an IRS representative last month to outline federal guidelines regarding churches and political activity. Mr. Kline told The Associated Press he didn't want churches or clergy to be intimidated into silence. Kline spokesman Whitney Watson says the state has never received a formal complaint about inappropriate political activity in a church.
Nevertheless, Ms. McKnight says Mainstream Coalition volunteers will keep monitoring church services. She says volunteers will be sent to churches in every denomination represented in the county. The clandestine campaign is in response to the voter-registration drive that 150 Kansas pastors are promoting in their churches. Ms. McKnight says that effort runs "perilously close" to blurring the line between church and state. The ministers say they aren't breaking the law, and that Mainstream Coalition uses scare tactics to try to prevent churches from mobilizing voter opposition to political agendas the coalition endorses.
With less than six weeks to go before elections, Mr. Kline also pointed out that Mainstream Coalition, which claims to be nonpartisan, formed a non-tax-exempt political action committee to promote a platform and endorse candidates by name. The coalition's platform includes: opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, supporting embryonic stem-cell research, promoting exclusively teaching evolutionary theory in public-school science classes, and opposing faith-based initiatives.