A leaked e-mail seeking to enlist “friendly” churches for the Bush campaign is being criticized as an improper violation of the separation of church and state.

The Interfaith Alliance made public an intercepted e-mail seeking to identify 1,600 churches in Pennsylvania “where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis.”

The e-mail, from Luke Bernstein, coalitions coordinator for the Bush campaign in Pennsylvania, asked recipients to serve as a “coordinator” in their place of worship to help with “activities such as distributing general information/updates or voter registration materials in a place accessible to the congregation.”

The e-mail said the Bush-Cheney ’04 national headquarters had asked Pennsylvania leaders to identify the 1,600 churches, suggesting a national, large-scale strategy targeting churches.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it a “misguided attempt to build a church-based political machine” that ought to be dropped immediately.

The Washington-based church-state separation group warned the plan jeopardizes churches’ tax-exempt status and could divide congregations along political lines.

“This is the most shocking example of politicizing churches I’ve even seen,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a statement.

Even some Bush supporters were troubled with campaign materials being distributed in a church or at a worship service.

“If I were a pastor, I would not be comfortable doing that,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, quoted in the New York Times. “I would say to my church members, we are going to talk about the issues and we are going to take information from the platforms of the two parties about where they stand on the issues. I would tell them to vote and to vote their conscience, and the Lord alone is the Lord of the conscience.”

Land’s “For Faith & Family” radio program recently announced iVoteValues.com, a voter education and registration drive encouraging Christians to “vote your values instead of your political affiliation or pocketbook.”

The Web site describes the effort as non-partisan. It offers side-by-side breakdowns of presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry comparing the candidates’ “values” on issues including appointing judges who will outlaw abortion, a constitutional ban on gay marriage, displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings, gun control and the war in Iraq.

The site offers no similar breakdown on issues traditionally important to Baptists, such as gambling, alcohol, hunger, poverty or civil rights.

A page on helping voters think about “what your core values should be as a follower of Jesus” links to conservative Web sites sponsored by D. James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America and the Family Research Council, along with Public Agenda.

The Web site also lists “dos and don’ts” for churches and pastors, describing legal limits on activities like electioneering, but also encouraging pastors, “Your hands are not completely tied. In fact, you may be surprised at how much influence you can have.”

Americans United has in the past criticized the Christian Coalition for distributing “voter guides,” which also compare political candidates issue-by-issue. While those scorecards are promoted as being non-partisan, the issues are presented in a way to favor Republican candidates, Lynn has said, urging churches not to use the voter guides.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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