Church Surveys Candidates for Voters Guide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's largest church is surveying candidates for local posts this election season, asking them pointed questions about controversial issues such as homosexuality, euthanasia and abortion.

Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa's unprecedented foray 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.

Political observers and candidates said they have never before heard of a church issuing such a questionnaire, though various advocacy groups--including Christian political organizations--have conducted similar surveys.

Some said they find the questions in the survey troubling.

"I'm just real concerned about the marriage of church and state that this voters guide appears to be considering," said Harvey Englander, a Huntington Beach-based consultant who has worked for Democrats and Republicans.

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 voters guide.

Churches have "the responsibility to speak out on moral issues and . . . how they're reflected in public policy," she said.

Though the church is breaking no law by publishing a "voters 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," Petracca said of the surveys. "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 just going to publish the results," he said.

Founded in 1965, Calvary Chapel is among the largest churches in the United States, drawing as many as 50,000 people to services in locations across Orange County each Sunday. Headquartered in Santa Ana, the church has spawned 570 branches around the country.

The church distributed 600 surveys to candidates in the county Sept. 20, asking that they be returned within a week. As of Wednesday, 166 candidates had responded, Hocking said.

Those running for county offices or city council seats were asked 10 questions; school board candidates were asked seven. Candidates for some special districts also received questionnaires, 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 distribution of condoms on school campuses. It asks if they would support abstinence-only sex education, parental consent for abortion and equal access for anti-abortion speakers on school campuses.

"The voters have the right to know where people stand," said Costa Mesa City Council candidate Chris Steel, who returned his survey with mostly 'yes' answers.

Hocking said a booklet containing the results of the survey will be distributed at churches throughout the county about two weeks before the election.

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