UMC Cautious of Church-Centered Election Strategies

( [email protected] ) Jul 08, 2004 04:53 PM EDT

The United Methodist Church, the second largest denomination in the nation with some 8 million members, have cautioned its churches against providing church directories to presidential campaigns, on July 7, 2004. The warning comes in reaction to the vigorous election-strategies of the presidential candidate coalitions that have asked church members to conduct voter registration drives, distribute voter guides and submit a list of church-member directories.

“A church should be extremely cautious about assisting any candidate or party,” said James Allen, associate general counsel for the churchwide Council on Finance and Administration.

According to Allen, those initiatives seek to “encourage church members and churches to walk a very fine legal line,” and can potentially “endanger [the church’s] tax-exempt status.”

More liberal members of the church say those campaigns already violate the separation of church and state.

“It is a violation of the separation of church and state to politicize the church,” said Charlotte Coffelt, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston, and a board member of the liberal Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Under no circumstances should a campaign think of using church directories as part of the campaign, because it is a violation and churches could jeopardize their tax exempt status.”

Christians have criticized the Americans United for the Separation for Church and State for its atheistic stances on Politics. The AUSCS opposes several Church-State initiatives, including the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, the Federal Marriage Amendment, California Missions Preservation Act and the Faith Based Initiatives. The AUSCS have also avidly opposed any form of religious symbols on public school ground and stood against the pledge of Allegiance’s inclusion of “one nation, under God.”

Coffelt, who is also a candidate for the Texas State House of Representatives, added, “I would not dream of taking my political campaign material into the foyer of any United Methodist church in the district in which I am running. My campaign would not use church directories to distribute campaign material.”

However, the Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel defended the campaign, saying that it was well within the law.

"People of faith have a right to take part in the political process, and we're reaching out to every supporter of President Bush to become involved in the campaign," Stanzel said.

The Rev. Eliezer Valentin-Castanon, director of civil and human rights at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington, agreed, saying, “Parties have the right to ask…there is no violation of church and state” when the candidates seek information from churches.

Nevertheless, he said individual churches must proceed with caution, not in fear of violating government laws, but rather in respect of its congregants.

“It is important for churches to know that if they provide the information from the directories, without members being aware, they might be liable because it is a privacy matter.”