Washington -- In a victory for the beleaguered Christian Coalition, a federal judge rejected most charges on Monday in a lawsuit that accused the group of illegally distributing millions of voter guides and mailings to promote Republican candidates.
Judge Joyce Green of Federal District Court here took issue with the Federal Election Commission, which in filing the lawsuit three years ago argued that the coalition's nonpartisan posture was a sham. Judge Green dismissed accusations that the organization sought to improperly help candidates, including former President George Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, through its literature, telephone banks and other efforts.
The coalition, which held that its activities were covered by free speech, was not completely vindicated. Judge Green ruled that it must pay a civil penalty -- the amount has yet to be determined -- to the election commission for advocating the election of Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia during his drive in 1994 to become speaker of the House. She also ruled that the coalition improperly shared its mailing list with the Senate campaign in 1994 of Oliver L. North, a major figure in the Iran-Contra affair who became a talk radio personality.
Still, the overall ruling was welcome news for the coalition, the nation's largest organization of religious conservatives, which has been riven by deep financial problems and leadership turmoil.
In June, the coalition acknowledged that its application to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status had not been approved and that the organization would reorganize in a move to retain its influence. The IRS action is separate from the court ruling on Monday.
"This is a decisive victory for First Amendment freedom for all groups that want to involve themselves in federal issues," Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who founded the coalition in 1989, said in a telephone interview. "It shows that all of those critics who have been trying to scare the churches under the guise of revocation of tax exemption are just not telling the truth."
Brushing aside the group's internal troubles, Robertson, who has reasserted control over the organization, declared that the verdict ushers in a new era for the coalition. "I'm back in charge," he said. "We have a new sheriff in Dodge and it's a brand new game. The coalition, based on this ruling, becomes extremely significant in the year 2000 race."
Ron Harris, a spokesman for the election commission, said, "We don't normally comment on litigation matters. We're still looking at the ruling -- it's 117 pages."
In an interview when the suit was filed, Lee Ann Elliott, a Republican who was the commission's chairwoman, said of the coalition, "There was a majority of the commission that felt they had gone too far."
Advocates of tightening campaign finance laws argued that the verdict would encourage other organizations -- from environmentalists to abortion groups to unions -- to bend and stretch the laws by trying to help candidates but not reporting their efforts as independent expenditures or in-kind contributions.
"This is certainly another large piece of plaster which is falling off the ceiling of campaign finance regulation," said Robert F. Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who specializes in campaign finance law. "It's a serious setback for the commission's ability to control unregistered organizations or issue advertising of independent groups of all stripes."
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a longtime critic of the coalition, said the ruling was "disappointing but not surprising" because "the courts have been lax in enforcing federal election law." He added, "The decision still provides plenty of evidence that the Christian Coalition is a hardball partisan political operation."
Judge Green gave a detailed definition of what constitutes improper coordination between a campaign and an outside group, but she said the coalition did not appear to cross that line. "A corporation's mere announcement to the campaign that it plans to distribute thousands of voter guides on the Sunday before Election Day, even if that information is not yet public, is not enough to be coordination," she ruled.
But Judge Green also said one reason the coalition did not act improperly was because the Bush campaign refused its entreaties during the 1992 campaign. She wrote that "it appears that the coalition avoided impermissible coordination" of its spending on voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts "although not for lack of trying."
She continued, "The primary reason that these expenditures were not coordinated is that campaign staff, armed with foreknowledge of the coalition's plans, chose not to respond to the coalition's implicit offers to discuss or negotiate those plans."
The suit brought against the coalition took aim at one of its most effective -- and controversial -- organizing tools: the millions of voter guides that list candidates' records on assorted issues. The suit asserted that while the guides distributed between 1990 and 1994 did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates, legal questions arose because the coalition coordinated the distribution and content of the guides to favor particular candidates.
The suit resulted from a four-year inquiry by the commission that was prompted by complaints from the Democratic National Committee and the Virginia Democratic Party.
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