Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Two liberal religious groups are asking Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry to “stop politicizing religion,” even going so far as to call a partisan church service on behalf of the senator “over the top.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Miami violated federal tax law during an Oct. 10 service featuring speeches by Mr. Kerry, former presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton and other prominent Democrats.

During the service, the Rev. Gaston E. Smith introduced Mr. Kerry as “the next president of the United States” and told the crowd, “For every Goliath, God has a David. For every Calvary’s cross, God has a Christ Jesus. … To bring our country out of despair, discouragement, despondency and disgust, God has a John Kerry.”

The Kerry campaign said neither it nor the pastor did anything wrong.

“We think it was perfectly within the bounds of propriety and the law, and, more importantly, it was a statement of the moral dimensions of this campaign, which is always welcome in a house of God,” campaign spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Asked about it last night, Jesse Jackson, one of those who stood at the altar with Mr. Kerry on Sunday, said he didn’t think the service crossed the line, and said churches always have been at the forefront of civil rights and moral struggles.

“The black church is a source of liberation, and within that context, people will determine what is in their best interest,” said Mr. Jackson, who was in Tempe, Ariz., for the third presidential debate.

He also said he has heard reports of voter suppression and intimidation, and churches are the way to combat that. “We have no place to turn to but the church,” he said.

During Sunday’s event, Mr. Sharpton also praised the Massachusetts senator and attacked President Bush. He also criticized the Florida recount of 2000, promising that voters in the state would deliver a “big payback” to the president.

He predicted that the future of the country and the world “will rest in our ability to come out in big numbers and elect this man on November 2.”

Mr. Kerry’s speech compared the Bush administration to unfaithful Jews prophesied against in Jeremiah 5:21 “who have eyes, but do not see; who have ears, but do not hear.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called the service a “rally,” saying it was a clear violation of federal law that bars houses of worship and other tax-exempt groups from intervening in political campaigns.

“Federal tax law is clear on this matter,” Mr. Lynn said. “Houses of worship may not endorse candidates for public office, and they certainly may not host huge partisan rallies. This was way over the top.”

Sunday’s event “appears to have been a clear case of a church hosting a partisan political rally,” he said. “I believe the obvious aim of this event was to endorse Kerry’s candidacy and spur congregants to vote for him.”

On Tuesday, the Interfaith Alliance called on Mr. Kerry to “stop politicizing religion,” citing the Sunday service.

“Our concern is to protect the sanctity of houses of worship and the integrity of religion,” said the alliance’s president, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy. “We’re not calling for houses of worship to shut down political discussion and education on the issues, but we are calling on all candidates and religious leaders to stop engaging in partisan politics at their houses of worship.”

During the election cycle, liberal groups have accused conservatives of politicizing the campaign and using church-member lists to garner votes.

In May, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan for his May 1 pastoral letter urging local Catholics not to vote for candidates who support abortion, stem-cell research on embryos or euthanasia.

Mr. Lynn’s group filed a complaint with the IRS in July against the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, of the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. It cites a July 4 sermon in which, among other things, Mr. Floyd complained that Mr. Bush got 4 million fewer votes from evangelical Christians in 2000 than the previous Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, did in 1996.

An advertisement that premiered in August in 14 major newspapers, including The Washington Times, and dozens of smaller ones, and in college publications, and Sojourners, a liberal evangelical magazine, said that “leaders of the religious right mistakenly claim that God has taken a side in this election, and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush.” The ad has 82,169 signers and 5,242 donors to date.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from Tempe, Ariz.

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