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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Ruling in favor of Christian Coalition not likely to change Jewish advocacy

WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (JTA) — A federal judge’s ruling that cleared the Christian Coalition of wrongdoing in advocating the election of Republican candidates could prompt other interest groups to engage in more vigorous partisan political activity. But Jewish groups and other non-profits that have long been constrained by federal tax law from taking sides in campaigns are not likely to be affected by the ruling. The Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Coalition in 1996, charging that the conservative Christian lobby’s non-partisan posture was bogus and that it illegally promoted the election of Republican candidates through voter guides and activities coordinated with Republican campaigns. The FEC said the guides, distributed in churches around the country, were blatantly partisan and therefore violated federal law prohibiting tax-exempt groups such as the Christian Coalition from supporting a political party. But U.S. District Judge Joyce Green on Monday ruled that the guides were not partisan because they were not coordinated with candidates or campaigns. The guides made clear which candidates the coalition preferred, but that was not illegal, she said. At the same time, Green ordered the coalition to pay a civil penalty because she determined that the group went too far in advocating the re-election of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994 and by sharing its mailing list with the Senate campaign of Oliver North in 1994. The amount will be determined later. Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson called the ruling “a major victory for free speech in this country.” The decision is separate from an IRS ruling released in June that found the Christian Coalition was not entitled to tax-exempt status because its political activities were too partisan. The group’s voter guides, long considered one of its most effective organizing tools, were also the main source of contention in that case. Many interest groups interpreted the IRS decision as a signal that employing the Christian Coalition’s brand of partisan politicking would almost certainly risk their tax-exempt status. But for businesses and corporations that are not constrained by such considerations — including groups such as the AFL-CIO, which sided with the Christian Coalition in the FEC case — Monday’s ruling could encourage them to stretch the laws and step up their support for certain candidates, experts say. For Jewish groups, many of which have long been frustrated that they are prohibited from weighing in on the candidacies of people such as former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke, the ruling does not portend any foreseeable change. Banned by law from engaging in “substantial political activity,” tax-exempt Jewish advocacy groups try to remain non-partisan, with their political activities limited to voter education rather than explicit judgments. The JAC Education Foundation and the National Jewish Democratic Council, for example, have in the past distributed voter guides to help educate Jewish voters about issues ranging from U.S.-Israel relations to the separation of church and state. “The constraints that have been there I believe will continue to be there, and the decision by the IRS will only strengthen the reluctance of groups to cross the line,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office. For the mainstream Jewish community, he added, “it’s just not part of the culture of the organizations to get involved politically that way, so I don’t think there’s going to be any significant change in that regard.” Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, added: “Anybody who interprets this as open season to intervene in election campaigns I think is foolhardy and mistaken.” The ruling in favor of the Christian Coalition has provided a boost to an organization that has been beset by financial problems and disarray in the ranks of its leadership. The coalition is currently $2.5 million in debt and remains strongly organized in only seven states, down from the 48 it claimed last year, The New York Times reported this week. The group misrepresented its base — many of the 1.8 million people on its books, it turns out, were not real supporters, according to the Times. Following the IRS ruling in June, the coalition announced it was splitting into two entities as part of a sweeping reorganization. One, called Christian Coalition International, plans to endorse and make financial contributions to candidates and would not be tax exempt. A second, tax-exempt group called Christian Coalition of America, will continue to engage in voter education activities similar to those the group has undertaken in the past. Bolstered by Monday’s ruling, the coalition said it plans to move ahead with plans to distribute 75 million voter guides in the 2000 election.