Kerry church vote pitch criticized

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President Bush’s campaign yesterday criticized a new Democratic effort to get out the religious vote for John Kerry, saying it could endanger churches’ tax-exempt status by involving them in partisan political activity.

The Democrats said changes would be made.

A Democratic National Committee Web site launched this week encouraged Kerry supporters to download, print and distribute a DNC “Kerry/Bush Values Comparison Chart” to church groups and at churches. The chart opens with the statement “John Kerry Shares Our Values.”

“Share it with your pastor and ask if you can distribute it at your church,” the DNC site says.

Pastors who say yes could unwittingly be getting involved in partisan politics, something churches are not allowed to engage in if they are registered as tax-exempt organizations, Bush campaign lawyer Tom Josefiak said.

In addition, churchgoers handed the fliers could think they come from the church, he said. While the Web site is identified as the DNC’s, nothing on the chart itself indicates that the Democratic committee prepared it.

“We’re concerned it’s jeopardizing the tax status of a church,” Mr. Josefiak said.

DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said the phrasing on the Web site would be changed.

“The language you see on our Web site is from an early draft that we unfortunately posted on our Web site. We are making the necessary changes,” Mr. Cabrera said. Those will include removing the “share it with your pastor” line and adding a sentence to the flier identifying the DNC as its source, he said.

“We hope this doesn’t distract from the overall debate we want to start, and that is that it’s one thing to talk about values and another thing to act on values,” Mr. Cabrera said.

The Democratic effort and the Bush campaign’s attention to it is another sign of the religious vote’s importance in the close presidential race. Several religious groups criticized the Bush campaign this summer when it put out a memo asking church members to provide the campaign with church directories and to arrange with pastors to hold voter-registration drives.

Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission attorney and now head of the Center for Responsive Politics campaign watchdog group, said any churches that get involved in handing out the DNC flier would be “walking a very fine line.”

Tax-exempt churches can legally prepare and distribute nonpartisan voter guides as long as they do so independently, give all the candidates the same chance to respond, make no endorsements and do not give any candidate greater prominence than others, Mr. Noble said.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is keeping a close eye on church political activity. Spokesman Robert Boston said the DNC effort would pass muster as long as the Democrats made clear their flier was partisan and wasn’t suitable for distribution by churches.

Mr. Boston said political activity at churches has increased this election; his group has complained to the Internal Revenue Service about a pro-Kerry rally at a Florida church and a fund-raiser for Republican candidates held by a Texas church.

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