WASHINGTON – President Bush's re-election campaign is trying to recruit supporters from 1,600 religious congregations in Pennsylvania — a political push that critics said Wednesday could cost churches their tax breaks.
An e-mail from the campaign's Pennsylvania office, obtained by The Associated Press, urges churchgoers to help organize "Friendly Congregations" where supporters can meet regularly to sign up voters and spread the Bush word.
"I'd like to ask if you would like to serve as a coordinator in your place of worship," says the e-mail, adorned with the Bush-Cheney logo, from Luke Bernstein, who runs the state campaign's coalitions operation and is a former staffer to Sen. Rick Santorum (search), the president's Pennsylvania chairman.
"We plan to undertake activities such as distributing general information/updates or voter registration materials in a place accessible to the congregation," the e-mail says.
The Internal Revenue Service (search) prohibits political campaign activity, for or against any candidate, from taking place at all organizations that receive tax exempt status under a section of the federal tax code — including most churches and religious groups. Violators could lose their tax breaks and face excise taxes.
Bernstein refused comment. Kevin Madden, a Bush-Cheney spokesman at campaign's headquarters, said the campaign did not mean to imply that religious supporters should actually congregate for the president at their places of worship. But he would not say whether the campaign is taking steps to make sure they don't.
"People of faith feel strongly about the president, are people we want to be part of our campaign," Madden said.
"This message is intended to be from individual to individual," Madden said. "This is organizing with individuals who may be members of a church who we hope to identify as supporters and be part of our efforts."
Madden said the campaign also is targeting "Friendly Congregations" in other states, but he could not immediately specify where. Pennsylvania is a key political swing state that offers 21 electoral votes. Bush lost the state in 2000 by a mere 204,000 votes.
The director of a nonpartisan watchdog group called the campaign's church appeal "a breathtakingly sad example of mixing religion and politics."
"I have never in my life seen such a direct campaign to politicize American churches — from any political party or from any candidate for public office," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "By enrolling churches in an election scheme like this, I think the Bush-Cheney campaign is actually endangering those churches' tax exemptions without even the courtesy of telling them that they run a risk."