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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Wise Political Retreat by Church

October 20, 1994

Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, one of the largest churches in the country, has done the right thing in retreating from plans to sponsor a controversial "voter's guide" for campaigns for school board, city council and other local races in Orange County. In the process, it has defused a proposed challenge to its tax-exempt status, which would have forced the issue on church involvement in politics.

Now, wisely, the church hierarchy has decided to stay out of sponsorship of the survey, leaving it to parents and volunteers to disseminate any candidates' responses to a questionnaire. At least for now objections have abated.

While it lasted, the controversy was instructive. The original stated intention of publishing candidates' responses to a series of pointed questions on moral issues was said to be informational only, but some candidates understandably were concerned.

A series of closed-ended questions on such volatile and complicated questions as abortion left no room for explanation or nuance, and essentially backed candidates into a corner or put them in the position of refusing to cooperate.

The implication surely was going to be that if candidates had answered the "wrong way," or refused to take part, they might be considered objectionable for voters who were looking to the church for guidance on how to vote. That could make a difference when a big church makes a big mailing.

Church members are entitled to their own political views, of course, and like any group in American life they have a legitimate interest in finding out whether political candidates share their values and opinions. Church activism is an essential part of American history and the political process.

However, while churches have a clear interest in justice and social welfare, they violate Internal Revenue Service rules if they engage in political action and they risk loss of tax-exempt status.

The experience is a reminder too that voters, while bombarded with various messages suggesting how to vote, have a responsibility as individuals in a democracy to make informed judgments on their own.

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