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Clergy seek to keep politics out of worship sites

Peggy Fikac

Clergy gathered outside a church sanctuary Thursday to promote a campaign to keep partisan politics out of houses of worship — a choice of setting that Gov. Rick Perry's spokesman called hypocritical.

Members of the group, whose news release targeted the GOP governor for signing legislation at a church school gym, said it's proper for religious leaders to not only be in a religious space but to speak out on issues and encourage participation in the political process.

But they draw the line against the appearance of a congregation endorsing a political party or candidate.

"If they can comfortably call you their base, you have been co-opted," the Rev. Gerald Britt, a Baptist pastor and executive director of Central Dallas Ministries, said at the news conference near the sanctuary of the University United Methodist Church.

Britt and others who spoke are part of the Texas Faith Network, a project of the Texas Freedom Network, which calls itself "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right."

To that end, they want clergy to sign a "Respect Our Faith" pledge opposing activities such as distribution of partisan literature to a congregation.

"The worship of God is not a photo op," said the Rev. Tim Tutt of the United Christian Church in Austin.

The group took aim at Perry's appearing at the gym at a Fort Worth Christian academy to sign legislation putting more limits on abortion.

It also took issue with the Texas Restoration Project, an organization run by conservative pastors that has met with Perry and worked for the successful passage of a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

The Rev. Laurence White, a Houston Lutheran pastor who heads the project, didn't return a phone call. Nor did project consultants.

Perry, who has had strong support from religious conservatives, criticized the network when asked at an unrelated appearance.

"The Texas Freedom Network ... (is) there to keep people of faith from being engaged in the political process, the best I can tell. For them to stand up and say that we don't want people inside churches to be engaged in the debate of public issues, I'm a bit offended by that," he said.

Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black, asked if he found it ironic that the Texas Faith Network's news conference was in a church building near a sanctuary, said: "I call it hypocritical."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, dismissed that criticism.

"We are very clearly saying with this campaign that we want people of faith and congregations to absolutely be involved in the political dialogue in this state," she said.

Churches and other groups that are tax-exempt may not participate in political campaigns for or against candidates.

The Internal Revenue Service says it has increased education efforts and launched an enforcement program after seeing more such politicking in the 2004 election.

Tax-exempt groups may sponsor debates or educational forums without showing a candidate preference.

Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, among more than 100 religious leaders listed as signing the Respect Our Faith clergy pledge, said the distinction is simple.

"Speaking out on an issue like immigration reform from a religious point of view ... is entirely appropriate. Saying that you should vote for a certain candidate or party that takes a position ... is over the line," he said. "And that line is clear and the laws are not vague."