Justice Department Rejects Senators' Call For Probe Of Americans United For Separation Of Church And State

Organization Cleared Of Accusations Of 'Intimidating' Christian Voters

The U.S. Justice Department has rejected a demand by six Republican senators to investigate Americans United for Separation of Church and State for alleged intimidation and harassment of voters.

In a letter dated Feb. 4 that arrived at Americans United's Washington office yesterday, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Keeney wrote that the complaint against Americans United was deemed not worthy of a criminal investigation and said the matter has been dropped.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn welcomed the complete exoneration but added that more needs to be done. "Each one of those senators owes Americans United an apology," Lynn said. "With absolutely no evidence, these six men asked the top law enforcement official in the land to undertake a criminal investigation of my organization. This grotesque abuse of power should alarm every American."

The senators filed a formal complaint against Americans United last July, charging that the organization's efforts to educate houses of worship about the tax implications of intervening in partisan politics was a violation of federal statutes that criminalize activities designed to intimidate voters. Although they presented no compelling evidence of wrong-doing, the senators requested a criminal investigation of AU.

The six--Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina--charged in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that Americans United may have "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process."

The senators were referring to projects undertaken by Americans United in 1996 and 1998 during which the group sent educational materials to churches nationwide, advising them Christian Coalition "voter guides" are partisan material and that distributing them in church could result in revocation of tax-exempt status.

Helms and the others filed the complaint just a few weeks after Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson traveled to Washington to meet with the GOP Senate leadership last June to discuss campaign strategy for the year 2000. Americans United charged that the scheme to harass the organization was drafted then. (Two weeks after the meeting, the Coalition issued a statement applauding the senators' move.)

But the Justice Department rejected the overture. In the Feb. 4 letter to Lynn, Keeney wrote, "[T]he two criminal statutes that were potentially involved...reach only threats of physical or economic harm that are communicated to voters to stimulate or deter them from registering to vote or voting in federal elections. They do not reach the mere expression of opinions concerning the possible tax ramifications to organizations that engage such activities. For that reason, we declined to initiate a criminal investigation of the matter about which the Senators had complained."

Lynn said that Americans United will not be intimidated by Helms, his far-right Senate allies or the Religious Right. "If the Christian Coalition and its political cronies thought they could harass and bully Americans United into dropping its efforts to educate churches about the perils of partisan political activity, they were wrong," Lynn said.

Later this year, Americans United plans to announce the details of a national education campaign to remind churches to stay out of partisan politics and reject the Christian Coalition's duplicitous campaign materials.

"With this full exoneration in hand, we will redouble our efforts during this election year," Lynn said.

Americans United is a 60,000-member public policy group based in Washington, D.C. A non-partisan and multi-faith organization, it is recognized as the leading opposition voice to the Religious Right.

For more background on this controversy, check the story published in the September 1999 issue of Church & State at http://www.au.org/cs9992.htm

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