Group plans to monitor churches to watch for campaigning from pulpit

BY admin

June 30 2004 11:00 PM ET

A group that seeks to preserve the separation of church and state plans to send volunteers to Johnson County, Kan., church services starting in July to make sure there's no election-year campaigning from the pulpit.

About 100 ministers representing Johnson County churches attended a meeting earlier this month at First Family Church in Overland Park, where the Reverend Jerry Johnston urged them to help oust Kansas lawmakers who voted against a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "God calls a minister to speak on moral issues," said Johnston, who believes churches need to get more involved in politics.

But Internal Revenue Service rules forbid tax-exempt groups such as religious organizations from participating in political campaigns for or against a candidate.

Now a Johnson County-based group called the Mainstream Coalition, headed by Caroline McKnight, is sending letters to more than 400 churches in the county reminding them of the IRS rules on campaigning. McKnight said Johnston and other ministers need to keep partisan politics out of their sermons. "His job is to lead his flock by setting an example...not by bringing the smoke-filled room into his sanctuary," McKnight said.

After the Kansas house voted in May against putting the state constitutional amendment before voters, a group of prominent Kansas ministers vowed to rally their congregations to defeat those lawmakers who opposed the ban. The ministers have set a goal of registering 100,000 new Kansas voters before the August 3 primary. Information about how to register members of their congregations was provided at the meeting at Johnston's church, which has about 3,000 members.

Johnston has been distributing a pamphlet with background information on incumbent state legislators and their voting records on the gay marriage amendment and abortion issues. He said Mainstream Coalition members are welcome at his church, though he added that they won't find the ministers doing anything wrong. "Are we going to violate the law? Of course not," Johnston said. "We're not rabid, crazy fanatics."

The Mainstream Coalition said it will ask its volunteers to report their observations after each church visit, and any major violation of the rules could be filed with the IRS.

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