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Church-state separation becomes a hot issue in Kansas, with pastors' sermons monitored

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2004

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) A recent Sunday found Tina Kolm changing her morning routine. Instead of attending a Unitarian Universalist service, she was at the Lenexa Christian Center, paying close attention to a conservative minister's sermon about the importance of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Kolm is one of about 100 volunteers for the Mainstream Coalition, a group monitoring the political activities of local pastors and churches. The coalition, based in suburban Kansas City, says it wants to make sure clergy adhere to federal tax guidelines restricting political activity by nonprofit groups, and it's taking such efforts to a new level.

The 47-year-old Kolm, from Prairie Village, said keeping church and state separate is important to her. She doesn't want a few religious denominations defining marriage or setting other social policy for everyone.

''What it's all about to me is denying some people's rights,'' she said.

But some local clergy think the Mainstream Coalition is using scare tactics designed to unfairly keep them out the political process.

''Somebody is trying to act like Big Brother when there's no need for Big Brother,'' said the Rev. James Conard, assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Shawnee. ''It's obviously an intent to intimidate.''

Kansas isn't the only place in this election year where church-state separation has become a hot issue, but the Mainstream Coalition's efforts are more intense than most.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint this month with the Internal Revenue Service against the Rev. Jerry Falwell over a column endorsing President Bush on his ministries' Web site. Falwell said the group was waging a ''scare-the-churches campaign.''

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said local chapters have sent volunteers to church services the Sunday before an election, but he said the Mainstream Coalition's efforts are more sustained.

''To my knowledge, there's no other state organization doing what the Mainstream Coalition is doing,'' said Lynn, himself a United Church of Christ minister.

Some conservatives are upset.

''These people will stop at nothing to silence churches,'' said Andrea Lafferty, executive values of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition, which says it represents 43,000 churches.

The catalyst for the Mainstream Coalition's campaign in Kansas was the debate over gay marriage.

In May, the Kansas House rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Dozens of pastors then joined a statewide effort to register 100,000 new voters and elect more sympathetic candidates a move similar to one in Washington state, where an Assembly of God pastor is leading an effort to register 60,000 new voters and re-elect Bush.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the nonpartisan First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said Mainstream's tactics only added to the tension in Kansas. ''If we want to escalate a cultural war, this is a good way to do it,'' he said.

But Mainstream's executive director, Caroline McKnight, said her organization is only trying to make sure that churches follow federal law. The group has not yet filed any complaints, she said.

According to IRS guidelines, churches cannot endorse individual candidates, and their pastors cannot use the pulpit or church newsletters to do so.

Churches can compile voters guides though such guides are supposed to be unbiased. Pastors can preach on issues and, as individuals, endorse candidates. McKnight said her group was reacting to pastors being public ''brazen,'' in her words about political activity.

McKnight said the IRS does not have the resources to monitor churches' activities, something an agency official confirmed during a recent seminar on political activity by nonprofit groups.

Lynn said complaints to the IRS are uncommon, though his group has filed 50 during the past decade. He said 19 of those complaints involved improper endorsements of Democratic candidates.

McKnight said Mainstream Coalition volunteers visit houses of worship of all types. But conservative groups don't take such assurances at face value.

Said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, of Virginia Beach, Va.: ''Who deputized this group and its members to be thought police in Kansas or elsewhere?''

On the Net:

Mainstream Coalition: http://www.mainstreamcoalition.org/

Americans United for Separation of Church and State: http://www.au.org/

Traditional Values Coalition: http://www.traditionalvalues.org/



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