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Churches Are Target of Candidate's Memo

October 01, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. — Atty. Gen. Phill Kline wants to preach.

The GOP politician has told his staff to get him in front of as many congregations as possible this election season -- with an eye toward raising money and securing votes by sharing his faith with the faithful.

He'll speak at several churches in a single Sunday if he can, Kline wrote in a strategy memo leaked to Kansas newspapers. He won't pause for lunch: "Feed me Slimfast." After he testifies about the saving grace of Jesus, he wants volunteers to hand out campaign literature.

A political reception should follow nearby; the pastor should invite five " 'money people' " -- and make sure all five show up.

Kline's memo offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at a candidate's efforts to leverage churches for political gain in a campaign season that has featured electioneering by religious groups on the right and the left.

"Getting down to the wire and we must maximize," wrote Kline, who is running neck and neck with his Democratic challenger.

He continued: "Goal is to walk away with contact information, money and volunteers and a committee in each church."

Two experts in IRS law -- one a top lawyer for conservative Christian causes -- said Kline's strategy could put churches at risk of losing tax-exempt status. Candidates may appear at churches during election season, but only if no political activity takes place in connection with the visit.

"The attorney general knows the IRS rules very well," said Kline's spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones. "There is nothing illegal or unethical in that memo."

Jones said Kline had preached at eight churches in the last two months, with political fundraisers after six of those appearances. But she said she did not believe campaign literature had ever been distributed on church grounds.

Kline has been a divisive attorney general, known for subpoenaing the medical records of abortion patients and insisting that healthcare workers inform the state if a child younger than 16 requests birth control or otherwise gives evidence of sexual activity.

The leaked memo gave his liberal critics a chance to pounce.

"A stink unto heaven," said the Rev. Vern Barnet of Kansas City.

He and 18 other religious leaders wrote a letter accusing Kline of exploiting his faith by "dressing a political campaign in the wool of Christian witness."

Kline has continued to woo religious voters. Two weeks ago, he preached to the men's group at his home church, Topeka Bible, about how he had overcome a rough childhood and found faith in Jesus. Afterward, a member of the group invited everyone to a political reception nearby.

The fundraiser had been planned for the church basement, "but we changed locations at the last minute so there weren't any looks of impropriety," said Marvin Spees, who organized the event.

About a dozen of the 50 men who heard Kline preach attended the political event. The pastor, the Rev. Jim Congdon, was not among them, nor did he invite any "money people." He also discourages candidates from handing out literature on church property.

"We try to avoid as much as possible anything that could appear to be over the line," Congdon said.

Some members of his congregation later said the pastor need not have been so careful: "As far as crossing a line, I don't see that there is a line," said Joe Little, an attorney who would like to see the church more involved in politics.

The tone of Kline's memo may have been a bit brusque, said Debi Parker, a former teacher. But she said she was certain the attorney general's intention was honorable -- and proud that he found it so important to reach out to voters who shared his faith.

As she put it: "I don't mind being targeted."

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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