Christian Coalition will split into two organizations

One will pay taxes, other will seek to be tax-exempt

June 11, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Faced with the denial of its tax-exempt status by the IRS, the Christian Coalition announced yesterday that it would split into two organizations: a taxpaying corporation that will endorse candidates and raise money for political causes, and a nonprofit arm for voter education.

Critics, who say the Christian Coalition's mission is more political than religious, denounced the reorganization as a ruse to sidestep the Internal Revenue Service ruling. But Christian Coalition officials said it was spurred by frustration over the decade-long wait for tax-exempt approval.

"The reorganization came at the end of a long and fruitless negotiation with the IRS that had gone on for more than 10 years and that left us in limbo," said spokesman Mike Russell.

Founded by Pat Robertson in 1989 after he abandoned his presidential bid, the Virginia-based organization was influential in electing conservative candidates in the early 1990s. But in recent years, its influence, membership and fund raising have been on the wane.

Pending the approval of its application, the Christian Coalition had been operating as if it were tax-exempt, and it might owe the IRS back taxes.

The group has changed its name to Christian Coalition International, which will operate without the restraints on partisan political activity put on tax-exempt nonprofits.

The Christian Coalition of Texas, which operates under the 510(c)(4) status that was sought by the national organization, will be renamed the Christian Coalition of America.

"That organization will continue to engage in voter education efforts, get-out-the-vote drives and activist recruiting," Russell said.

It will also continue to produce the voter guides that provoked complaints that the Christian Coalition was overly partisan.

The IRS ruling, reported in yesterday's St. Petersburg Times, was hailed by Christian Coalition opponents.

"The first and most important effect is this destroys the Christian Coalition's credibility with the religious community," said Joseph Conn, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a leading critic.

"Pastors would have to be out of their minds to pass out these voter guides after the Christian Coalition has been rejected by the IRS as a tax-exempt group. That clearly would put the churches' tax-exemption at risk."

But conservative activist Paul Weyrich called the IRS ruling a "travesty of justice." Liberal church and environmental nonprofit groups that cross the line go unpunished, he said, while "the sin of Christian Coalition was that it dared oppose the policies of Bill Clinton. Had they been a supporter, this never would have happened."

James L. Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who studies the religious right, said the reorganization will not solve the Christian Coalition's tax-exempt problem.

"It strikes me it runs the same risks," he said. "If you're going to fund voting guides that are clearly biased and partisan, you're going to run the risk of losing that [tax] exemption."

Some observers say the IRS ruling and the reorganization are evidence of more disarray in the once-powerful standard bearer of the Christian right. Its highly visible executive director Ralph Reed left in 1997 to become a political consultant, a half-dozen top officials have left or been forced out in recent months, and its influential role in the religious right is being challenged by the Family Research Council, founded by presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

"This probably means that the Christian Coalition has a very troubled future," said Justin Watson, author of "The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition."

"The advantage it's had in the past -- that it was well-organized, that it was new and different, and that it had the sunny smell of success -- are all gone," he said.

"And now only 18 months away from the next major election, they have to reorganize. It's going to introduce an element of chaos into what they're doing that's really going to be crippling."

But Robertson said, "Christian Coalition of America will continue to be a force in American politics. And it will remain a prominent fixture on the political landscape as the nation's number one pro-family, pro-life organization."

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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