For the first time, Orange County's largest church is surveying candidates for local posts this election season, asking them pointed questions about controversial moral issues such as homosexuality, euthanasia and abortion.
The unprecedented venture by Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa into local politics will include distribution of the responses to more than 50,000 people before the Nov. 8 election, to highlight which candidates agree with the church's values and views.
"It is just tough for the average person to get accurate information . . . (on the) moral and family values that we are concerned about," said David Hocking, a pastor at Calvary Chapel. "We deal with picking up the pieces of people's broken lives. The whole culture is collapsing. Somebody better start asking some questions."
Political observers and local candidates said they have never before seen a church issue such a questionnaire, though various advocacy groups--including Christian political organizations--have been conducting similar surveys since the early 1980s. Several candidates and political observers said they found the questions troubling.
Harvey Englander, a Huntington Beach-based consultant who has worked for Democrats and Republicans, called the situation "unusual and disturbing."
"I'm just real concerned about the marriage of church and state that this voter's guide appears to be considering," said Englander, who added that he would advise candidates he is helping not to fill out the surveys. "I think if the Calvary Chapel wants to get involved in political campaigns, they ought to take it out of the church and put it in the political hall where it belongs."
But Jo Ellen Allen, vice chairwoman of the Orange County Republican Party and president of the Eagle Forum of California, said that as long as the church does not endorse candidates, she sees no problem with the voter's guide.
"What the church should be is the conscience of the nation and the community," she said. "It has the responsibility to speak out on moral issues and make congregations aware of moral principles and how they're reflected in public policy."
While the church is breaking no laws by publishing a "voter's guide," experts said, it appears to take advantage of a loophole in the laws governing political activism by tax-exempt organizations.
Churches are not allowed to endorse candidates but can circulate educational information during campaigns. Unlike advocacy groups that endorse candidates, churches are not required to file disclosure forms about money collected or spent on politics.
Mark Petracca, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine who specializes in local government, said he is concerned about accountability when tax-exempt groups participate in the political process.
"This is a circumvention mechanism, a very thinly veiled circumvention mechanism," Petracca said of the surveys. "What they're doing is dishonest. Their intention is not to give voters a guide but to give support to candidates who answer in the way they prefer."
Hocking denied that the guide is a method of disguising endorsements. "We're not going to favor one over the other. We're just going to publish the results," he said.
Founded in 1965, Calvary Chapel is among the largest churches in America, Hocking said. It draws as many as 50,000 people to services in locations throughout Orange County each Sunday, he said. Headquartered in Santa Ana, the church has spawned 570 branches around the country.
The church distributed 600 surveys to candidates throughout the county Sept. 20, asking that they be returned within a week and warning: "If we do not receive your answers, we will be forced to state that you did not respond to our questionnaire." As of Wednesday, 166 candidates had responded, Hocking said.
Those running for county offices or city council seats were asked 10 questions, while school board candidates were asked seven. Candidates for some special districts also received questionnaires, Hocking said, though there was no questionnaire specifically designed for them.
City council candidates were asked if they would oppose "special legal status for homosexuals," "insurance coverage for . . . homosexual partners of government employees," "businesses which sell or rent pornographic materials," and "removal of (religious) artifacts . . . from public property."
The school board questionnaire asks candidates if they would oppose "school-based 'health' clinics," and distribution of condoms on school campuses. It asks if they would support abstinence-only sex education, parental consent for abortion and equal access on school campuses for those who oppose abortion.
"I think this just gets (candidates') views on social and moral issues, and I think they should do that," said Costa Mesa City Council candidate Chris Steel, who returned his survey with mostly 'yes' answers, he said. "The voters have the right to know where people stand. As much as they can know about the candidates, the better."
Added Arturo Moreno, a candidate for the Garden Grove Unified Board of Education, who also returned the survey: "I think it's great that we're getting more political candidates who aren't afraid to say we're Christians."
But some candidates complained that the questionnaires are slanted and simplistic.
"I'm willing to fill out surveys that will allow me room to explain my reasoning in full sentences," said Karen Wilson, who is running for the school board in the Newport-Mesa Unified district, but does not plan to return Calvary Chapel's survey. "Generally I'm not a real wordy person, but most issues, I think, deserve a well-thought-through answer and not just a yes or no."
Though he filled out the survey and supports the church's position on most issues, Capistrano Unified school board candidate Dorsey Brause agreed. "I don't like 'yes' and 'no,' frankly," he said. "I prefer some explanation."
Hocking, who spearheaded the organization of the voter's guide, said it was designed to be pointed and avoid any gray area.
Several incumbents said this was the first time they had received such a survey from a church, though other groups--including the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition and the Orange County Pro-Family Candidate Campaign--have produced strikingly similar questionnaires.
Annette B. Gude, who has sat on the Capistrano Unified board for 14 years, and Dick Hain, a 13-year veteran of the Garden Grove Unified school board, both said they did not return the surveys because the questions seemed irrelevant to school board business and because they fear the influence of the Christian right in school politics.
"It's 'yes' or 'no' and it's like, 'Do you (still) beat your wife?' How do you say yes or no to that? These are loaded questions," Gude complained. "I don't trust them. It just concerns me because all of these things have nothing to do with the basics of education: reading, writing, arithmetic."
The booklet will be distributed at churches throughout the county about two weeks before the election, Hocking said. The cost of postage, photocopying and labor involved in the surveys have all been donated, he said, brushing off any criticism of the church's heightened involvement in campaigns this year.
"The breakdown of parental authority, the breakdown of families . . . we've got terrible problems. For people to sit there and shoot at us because we want to do something about it, we don't buy it," Hocking said. "If we really want people to participate in the American political system, stop criticizing people who are providing information on political candidates."
Chapter and Verse
Calvary Chapel, the county's largest church, has distributed questionnaires to candidates for school boards and city and county government posts, seeking their views on controversial religious and moral issues. A sampling of questions:
FOR CITY AND COUNTY GOVERNMENT CANDIDATES
* Will you oppose an ordinance granting special legal status to homosexuals?
* Will you support laws restoring legal protection for unborn children from conception, with the possible exception where a medical procedure is necessary to prevent the mother's death?
* Will you oppose the removal of existing artifacts, monuments or works of art with a religious element from public property?
FOR SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES
* Will you support a school policy prohibiting school personnel from counseling or assisting students in obtaining an abortion?
* Will you oppose the distribution of condoms on school campuses?
* Will you support an abstinence-only program that does not present premarital sex (with or without contraceptives) or abortion as responsible and acceptable choices?
Source: Calvary Chapel