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Published: Monday, 2/6/2006

Politicking in the pulpit

Political candidates have for decades appeared at churches to try to convince the faithful - both partisan and religious - to vote for them. However, what a couple of central Ohio churches are doing is different.

They have unabashedly endorsed one Republican gubernatorial candidate, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. Other denominations don't like the obvious electioneering and are right to complain to the Internal Revenue Service.

Indeed, it's no secret that pastors have long urged their flocks to be sure to vote on Election Day. In fact, the black church played a key role in providing safe sites for blacks to register to vote during the civil rights era in the South decades ago. Nor is there anything wrong with candidates going to churches to seek voters' support, as long as the churches are willing to give all candidates a hearing.

But nonpartisan involvement is not what the World Harvest Church of Columbus and the Fairfield Christian Church of Lancaster are up to. They and affiliated groups, the Center for Moral Clarity and Reformation Ohio, leave no doubt that they want to elect Mr. Blackwell as governor.

Their activities prompted 31 religious leaders representing nine denominations to sign a letter of complaint to the IRS, charging that the churches are violating the federal stricture against political activity by churches and should lose their tax-exempt status.

These other clergy - including leaders of American Baptist, Christian Church, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Judaism, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian Universalist congregations - are right. They know that the partisan politics at the Rev. Rod Parsley's World Harvest and the Rev. Russell Johnson's Fairfield Christian churches might risk the tax-exempt status for all religious groups.

Asking the IRS to investigate is not petty or anti-faith. Rather, it's a stand against those who blatantly and openly favor a candidate or a slate of candidates without reservation and in violation of the tax code. Any group that wants to do that should have the integrity to give up its tax-exempt status.

Instead, both those churches continue to claim their activities are not partisan. Hogwash. What else is the message when Mr. Blackwell was the only gubernatorial candidate featured in church-sponsored events headed by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parsley?

Sadly, Mr. Blackwell isn't being a statesman about all this. He has, in effect, told the churches and their affiliates to ignore the complaint, deriding it as a "secular jihad against expressions of faith." His response suggests all is above board and that the complaining religious leaders give his party no reason to fear.

But Ohioans have a right to expect better of their chief elections officer, which is what Mr. Blackwell is supposed to be when he isn't out running for governor.

He of all officials should know that what Mr. Parsley and Mr. Johnson's churches are doing is illegal. And he should remember that most Ohioans basically believe in a separation of church and state.



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