Jewish nonprofits avoid tangles ensnarling Christian Coalition

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Election Commission's lawsuit against the Christian Coalition represents the kind of legal jam Jewish political advocacy groups have been careful to avoid.

The FEC is accusing the nation's largest group of religious conservatives of violating federal election law by promoting various Republican candidates in each national election since 1990.

The civil suit filed here in U.S. District Court charged that the Christian Coalition's nonpartisan posture was bogus and that it illegally promoted the election of Republican candidates through voter guides and efforts to identify GOP voters and get them to the polls.

Some tax-exempt Jewish groups also distribute materials during election years to help inform voters about candidates and issues.

But in accordance with federal law for tax-exempt organizations, Jewish groups say they are scrupulously nonpartisan.

"We are very careful not to do anything that might be construed as endorsing a candidate for political office," said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

Still, there has been a temptation, some in the Jewish community note, to speak out about specific candidates, particularly in an election year.

"It's not always easy to resist that temptation, particularly when your ideological opponents appear to be doing so with impunity," said Marc Stern, director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress.

Now that the FEC appears to be cracking down on the Christian Coalition, Jewish officials say the lawsuit confirms what has always been clear: Tax-exempt groups are precluded from taking sides in electoral politics.

They are not, however, precluded from creating an informed electorate, and to that end, a number of Jewish groups engage in political education activities.

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council carefully lays out the rules for such activity in a political education guide it publishes. The guide states that "any activity that has the hint of partisanship must be avoided."

The NJCRAC guide, for example, encourages communities to hold educational forums with candidates but stresses the necessity of inviting all contestants to participate.

In another example of Jewish voter education efforts, the AJCongress distributes questionnaires in various regions of the country outlining candidates' positions. The issues are deliberately selected to reflect an array of concerns. The questionnaires offer no judgments.

The Christian Coalition's voter guides, in contrast, "don't really leave much doubt about how people should vote," Stern said.

This year, the Christian Coalition plans to distribute 45 million voter guides to 100,000 churches nationwide, a project it has undertaken in past elections.

The FEC suit cited a 1994 mailing packet the Christian Coalition sent out titled "Reclaim America," which included a scorecard on congressional candidates.

The suit says: "The cover letter, signed by Pat Robertson, asserted that the enclosed scorecard would be an important tool for affecting the outcome of the upcoming elections. It stated: `This scorecard will give America's Christian voters the facts they will need to distinguish between good and misguided congressmen.'"

The Christian Coalition denied wrongdoing. Ralph Reed, the group's executive director, said, "We are absolutely and totally confident that we will be fully vindicated and the courts will affirm that people of faith have every right to be involved as citizens and voters."

The Supreme Court may end up deciding that question.

Jewish groups are well acquainted with limits on political involvement.

The AJCommittee and the Anti-Defamation League were both named in an FEC complaint during the early 1990s concerning a publication they distributed about the presidential candidacy of Lyndon LaRouche.

The FEC said the publication indicated a position on LaRouche's candidacy, but it later dropped the complaint.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was also involved in an FEC lawsuit in 1989. The suit charged that the pro-Israel lobby coordinated congressional campaign contributions made by various pro-Israel political action committees. The FEC later cleared AIPAC of any charges.

Mindful of the tax code's prohibition against partisan activity, Jewish groups have exercised restraint in steering clear of partisan politicking.

Jewish officials, for example, have been constrained from commenting publicly about the candidacy of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan member who espouses anti-Semitic views. During elections, Jewish groups have been limited to speaking out on a candidate's anti-Semitism, but not on their qualifications.

"There have been situations where we have been concerned about political activity and have had discussions where we have had to remind people that, like it or not, we simply cannot do this, it's not legal,"said Karen Senter, NJCRAC's co-director for domestic concerns.