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updated 10/31/2006 4:18:07 PM ET 2006-10-31T21:18:07

Since being declared the key to President Bush's re-election in 2004, conservative Christian groups have enthusiastically embraced -- indeed defined -- the term "values voters." In late September, four of the most prominent groups -- the Family Research Council's FRC Action, Focus on the Family Action, American Family Association Action, and Americans United to Preserve Marriage -- convened their first "Values Voter Summit," which attracted a constellation of social-conservative leaders, conservative commentators, Republican presidential hopefuls, and even White House press secretary Tony Snow.

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But in a pre-emptive strike just days before the conservative confab in Washington, left-leaning progressive Christians launched their own "Voting Our Values" campaign challenging the ascendancy of the Religious Right and questioning the very notion of who values voters are and which values underpin their votes.

Progressive religious groups are rolling out voter guides as alternatives to the conservative Christian point of view, along with other initiatives to broaden and redefine the terms of the debate over religion in politics.

And with the IRS cracking down on partisan politicking by all tax-exempt organizations, left-leaning religious groups such as Catholics for a Free Choice, which favors abortion rights, as well as strictly secular organizations such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, are filing complaints against religious nonprofits -- to date, mostly conservative groups -- that they believe are crossing the line.

Religious activists on the right are pushing back, saying they are the targets of a larger campaign aimed at driving them out of the political process. "The last remaining politically correct bias is against people of faith," said First Amendment lawyer James Bopp, who represents several Christian conservative and anti-abortion groups.

2006 key races

Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, counters that after decades of dominance, "the free ride churches have enjoyed is over and people aren't happy about it." The watchdog group has filed 57 complaints with the IRS since 1996 accusing churches and religious nonprofits of illegal electioneering, and stands ready to file more.

Although religious voter guides were once the sole province of the Christian Coalition, which pioneered their use in the 1980s, several socially conservative groups now put them out, most prominently the influential Focus on the Family and the affiliated Family Research Council. Council spokesman J.P. Duffy says that 30 of the 38 state "family policy councils" have 2006 guides, while the national groups will distribute about 200,000 copies of their congressional-vote scorecards.

Churches, faith-based groups, and other tax-exempt nonprofits are allowed to conduct nonpartisan voter-registration, voter-education, and get-out-the-vote drives, and can advocate their position on issues generally. But they are barred from supporting or opposing candidates for office.

After a surge in complaints of illegal partisan politicking by nonprofits in the last election, the IRS served notice it is stepping up enforcement this year. In its investigation of political activity by tax-exempt groups in 2004, the IRS investigated 110 cases and found violations in 70 of the 98 cases it has closed, 42 involving churches.

So far in the 2006 campaign, the IRS has logged more than 140 complaints and is pursuing 60, according to Steven Miller, the IRS commissioner for Tax Exempt and Government Entities. About 10 of those 60 cases concern churches, Miller said, while religious organizations may be among the 50 others being reviewed.

Americans United has not filed complaints against any faith-based voter guides this year, according to spokesman Boston. However, the liberal Washington-based group Catholics for a Free Choice has been busy, taking aim earlier this month at the conservative nonprofit Catholic Answers and its new political arm, Catholic Answers Action.

Catholics for a Free Choice complained that Catholic Answers' 2004 guide broke the rules by listing just five issues that are "nonnegotiable" (abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage) and instructing Catholics not to vote for candidates who support them. The IRS says voter guides should cover "most major issues of interest to the entire electorate."

Although the IRS is still investigating the 2004 complaint, Catholic Answers formed Catholic Answers Action at the beginning of this year to put out the 2006 guide. As a 501(c)(4), Catholic Answers Action can engage in some political activity, but donations to the group are not tax-deductible. Catholic Answers is a 501(c) (3) and therefore must abide by stricter standards for election-related activities, but donations to it are deductible.

Catholics for a Free Choice now charges that the 2006 "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" violates the same rules as the 2004 version, and it accuses Catholic Answers and Catholic Answers Action of being so intertwined that the political arm is effectively financed by charitable contributions to the 501(c)(3).

President Frances Kissling has also filed several complaints of illegal electioneering against the anti-abortion Catholic nonprofit group Priests for Life.

"We're seeing a very aggressive attempt to challenge the IRS regulations," Kissling said. "It looks to me like these groups would welcome a fight, and they understand that they are crossing the line."

Catholic Answers Action spokesman Jimmy Akin said about 10 million copies of the 2004 guide were distributed online and in print. Without a presidential contest this year, Akin anticipates that his group will put out between 1 and 6 million copies and expects to spend "at least $100,000 to $200,000" for promotional efforts, including a full-page ad in USA Today.

Bopp, who represents Catholic Answers and Priests for Life, said their voter guides are legal because they do not name particular candidates and simply counsel voters to follow church teachings. He denounced Catholics for a Free Choice and the IRS for trying to silence conservative Christians.

"The IRS is famous for threatening and intimidating language that leaves you wondering what the standards are," Bopp said, "and they are being aided and abetted by people who are hostile to involvement of people of faith in the political process."

Americans United spokesman Boston disagrees. Christian conservatives "seem willing to bend and manipulate the IRS code [to] intervene in political campaigns," he said, "so they can get their social issues pushed through" Congress.

To counter what it calls "an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity" by religious conservatives, the progressive social-action ministry Sojourners/Call to Renewal last month launched the "Voting Our Values" campaign. It comprises the "Voting God's Politics" voter guide, a speakers bureau dubbed Red Letter Christians (after the color of Jesus's words in the Bible), the blog God's Politics, and a network of churches focused on promoting social justice.

"There is a real hunger out there for religious engagement in public life that goes beyond same-sex marriage and abortion," said Sojourners spokesman Jack Pannell. "We want to encourage [people] to vote their values -- and there are more than two values."

Pannell said that Sojourners distributed 5,000 copies of its first guide in 2004. This year, it has put out more than 300,000 through its Progressive Christian Network, which reaches nearly 225,000 activists across the country, and through its partner churches and faith-based groups. Sojourners is also promoting the guide at public appearances by founder and CEO Jim Wallis, and at candidate forums and other election-related events.

Like-minded activists at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good put together their first voter guide this year, "Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholics." Executive Director Alexia Kelley said that 1 million copies of the guide, which draws on "the full range of Catholic social tradition," will be distributed through a national grassroots network.

Kelley, who is also part of Red Letter Christians, said the progressive faith-based voter guides and the "Voting Our Values" campaign are part of "a movement of Christians who feel that the fullness of their faith has not been communicated effectively enough and are bringing forward this [social justice] tradition that has been eclipsed in the public square."

Sojourners and Catholics in Alliance say that by not identifying candidates and by invoking a wide array of moral values -- including economic, racial and gender justice, peace, respect for life, human dignity, workers' rights, strengthening families, and environmental stewardship -- their guides do not run afoul of IRS rules.

Joseph Cella, president of the conservative Catholic advocacy group Fidelis, dismissed progressives' efforts as "a desperate attempt to pick up voters [in] the larger cultural war." Cella does not question the legality of the liberal guides, but he emphatically rejects their content. "They twist the church's teachings to reclaim as many voters as possible to put the Catholic vote in play in the 2006 election and set the stage for 2008."

It's clear from the heated rhetoric on both sides that the battle among religious groups for the hearts, minds, and souls of values voters is reaching a fever pitch that won't end on Election Day.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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