As this year's election season swings into high gear, the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has pledged to monitor the political activities of churches and to advise the Internal Revenue Service about any religious groups that conduct illegal partisan campaigning.

"Most American churches responsibly comply with irs rules barring partisan politicking," says au Executive Director Barry Lynn. "Those who don't should give up their tax-exempt status."

The first target of AU's new Project Fair Play has been the 22,000-member Second Baptist Church of Houston. In March, AU urged the irs to investigate whether the activities of Second Baptist's Nehemiah Project broke the law during the Texas primary. Second Baptist officials acknowledged that the Nehemiah Project encourages church members to register, vote, and work for Christian principles. But they denied any illegal partisan politicking. "The church is not now and has never participated directly or indirectly in any political campaign," spokesperson Lisa Milne told CT. She says the campaign literature that AU found objectionable had been produced and distributed by an individual church member without official knowledge or approval.

Last year, after complaints from AU and others, the irs revoked the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which bought ads during the 1992 elections proclaiming that a vote for Bill Clinton was "a sin against God." The church is appealing the decision.

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