- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Black religious leaders disgruntled with the Bush administration have teamed with People for the American Way to conduct a national voter-registration drive in states where the president won by slim margins in 2000.

The African American Ministers Leadership Council, a nonpartisan group that advocates social policy empowerment for blacks in local and national government, will begin a yearlong campaign to register black voters. The organization falls under the umbrella of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.

The drive will be conducted in seven states — Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Missouri — from Dec. 19 through November.

“The states were chosen because they have large numbers of persons who are unregistered, traditionally have substantial voter-education issues and they were the subject of close races in previous elections,” said the Rev. Arnold Howard, chairman of the ministers council.

The first four of the targeted states voted for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. President Bush carried the other states — Ohio and Missouri — by 3 percentage points and won Florida by a little more than 500 votes.

The council is a national group of more than 50 ministers who meet throughout the year, but any church can participate in the registration drive, Mr. Howard said.

He said the group has conducted numerous voter education initiatives but has never organized under one program.

“We’re trying to tie the churches together to target the needs in their communities,” Mr. Howard said.

The cost of the program will be determined by donations and the number of volunteers who sign up.

Mr. Howard also criticized the voter-registration campaigns of conservative religious groups in his statement announcing the registration initiative. But he said the goal of the registration program is not to counteract or compete with any voting drives put on by Christian conservatives.

“For years now, the religious right has co-opted the language of the church and the language of the Bible and used it as a tool to motivate people in ways that conflict with our core beliefs and that are harmful to our communities,” Mr. Howard said.

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, a conservative religious group that also touts its mission as one that works to promote Christian values in government, said she was confused by Mr. Howard’s statement.

“I disagree with his comment. What we have done is encourage and register people to vote so they can exercise their freedom, and we encourage people to vote for the person that they feel would best serve in office,” she said.

The coalition conducts voter registration drives about every three months and has one running with Priests for Life, a Catholic-based, pro-life group, Mrs. Combs said.

Mr. Howard said Christian conservatives “unabashedly” use church Scripture and religious rhetoric to influence voters during their voter-registration drives. His group’s drive also will use elements of religious speech to encourage people to vote.

“In the past, we have not done that,” Mr. Howard said. “What we are saying is that there are some who use religious language to create a divide, and that is not what the language has been designed for and it certainly was never intended for that purpose.”

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