updated 8/23/2006 6:20:09 PM ET 2006-08-23T22:20:09

Three disgruntled state affiliates have severed ties with the Christian Coalition of America, one of the nation's most powerful conservative groups during the 1990s but now buffeted by complaints over finances, leadership and its plans to veer into nontraditional policy areas.

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"It's a very sad day for our people, but a liberating day," said John Giles, president of the coalition's Alabama chapter, which announced Wednesday that it was renaming itself and splitting from the national organization. The Iowa and Ohio chapters took similar steps this year.

Giles said he and his Alabama colleagues have "a dozen hard reasons" for the action but would elaborate on only one - a perception that the coalition's leadership was diverting itself from traditional concerns such as abortion and same-sex marriage to address other issues ranging from the environment to Internet access.

More trouble to come?
Giles predicted further defections and said the coalition was now left with only a half-dozen strong state chapters and a weak presence in Washington.

"In our prime, we were rated the seventh-most powerful lobbying organization in the country," he said. "Now, there's not even any blip on the radar screen."

At its peak, the coalition had a presence in every state, but in some cases a modest one.

The coalition's president, Roberta Combs, insisted her organization - which is $1 million in debt - would survive the defections, and was unapologetic about her interest in new directions.

"We're going to have a new mission, a new vision - much more broad-focused," she said. "They don't like some of the comments I've made about the environment and some of these other issues."

Decline defined
The coalition, which claims more than 2 million members, was founded in 1989 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and became politically powerful under Executive Director Ralph Reed before he left in 1997. Robertson, who turned over the presidency to Combs in 2002, has been criticized for provocative public statements, while Reed lost an election in Georgia last month after being linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Jim Backlin, the coalition's vice president for legislative affairs, said the Reed situation harmed the organization because of heavy media coverage that constantly mentioned his past role with the coalition.

Backlin insisted, however, that the coalition remained influential among conservatives in Congress.

"Many of the congressional offices always look for Christian Coalition support right away when trying to get their bosses' legislation passed," he said.

On the political left, an activist who monitors conservative organizations said the coalition never recovered from Reed's departure - with its staff and annual budget shrinking.

"They've been in free-fall ever since," said Peter Montgomery of the liberal group People for the American Way. "It's not surprising that local affiliates want to distance themselves from this floundering organization."

A lack of respect
Steve Scheffler, who led the breakaway of the coalition's Iowa chapter in March, blamed Combs herself for much of the friction, saying she didn't treat the heads of the state affiliates with respect.

"The relationship has been very poor - an F minus to say the least," he said. "Her abilities in leading a national organization are not good."

"The sooner the organization goes completely away, the better," he added. "They're a total disgrace."

Combs, in response, said, "I'm disappointed he'd feel that way."

In all three states with defecting chapters, there had been disputes with the coalition's national office over distribution of voter guides and political surveys. The national office, as part of an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service over its tax-exempt status, had asked the state chapters to submit any such materials for advance review, and Combs said the request was sometimes ignored.

Liberal leanings
In Alabama, according to Giles, some conservatives remained bitter toward Combs since she campaigned there in 2003 in support of a state tax increase.

The head of the breakaway Ohio chapter, Chris Long, said a particular source of concern was the coalition's recent collaboration with various grass-roots groups - some of them liberal - in lobbying for so-called "net neutrality" to safeguard equal access to the Internet.

"We were surprised that the national office took such a lead role on such an obscure issue, at time when marriage protection and stem cell research were being debated," Long said.

Combs said the coalition already has named new state directors for Iowa and Ohio, and she predicted it would retain the loyalty of supporters in all three states where chapters defected.

"There's enough room out there for everybody," she said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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