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NATIONAL | summer 2006

Sinking Ship
The Christian Coalition is awash in lawsuits, departures, and debt.

The Christian Coalition, onetime political vanguard of the religious right, seems to be doing a disappearing act.

Widely regarded as instrumental in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000—and a vehement backer of anti-choice legislation—the conservative lobby group founded in 1989 by televangelist Pat Robertson is but a shadow of its former self. According to its 2004 tax return, the most recent available, the group’s annual revenue has shrunk twentyfold, from a peak of $26 million in 1996 to 1.3 million. It reported a negative net worth of $2.3 million, and has faced at least a dozen lawsuits since 2001 from landlords, lawyers and other creditors trying to collect unpaid bills.

Now its state chapters are starting to abandon the sinking mother ship. The Iowa chapter disassociated itself from the national organization in March and the Maryland chapter followed suit in April. The Iowa chapter described the Coalition’s national leadership as “mired with dissent and distrust,” “riddled with lawsuits and unpaid bills” and “more interested in ‘looking good’ than ‘being good.’”

There were signs of trouble as long ago as 1996, when the Coalition’s chief financial officer, Judy Liebert, went to federal prosecutors with allegations of overbilling by a direct-mail vendor who was a close friend of then-executive director Ralph Reed. Liebert also claimed that Reed had given his friend unauthorized access to the Coalition’s prized 1.8 million-name mailing list.

Reed was never charged with any misdeeds, but by 1997 he was out the door, setting up a campaign consulting business in Atlanta. Now, the onetime boy wonder is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, where he is being dogged by his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Using two intermediaries in an apparent effort to obscure the source, Abramoff routed hefty sums to Reed’s company to lobby against rivals of Abramoff’s Native American gaming clients. Abramoff later pled guilty to defrauding those client tribes out of millions of dollars. The scandal also caused discomfort in the Alabama and Texas chapters of the Christian Coalition, to which Reed turned for foot soldiers in his work for Abramoff.

After Reed’s departure, the coalition became enmeshed in a whole new series of legal problems. In 2001, 10 African American employees filed a racial-discrimination lawsuit alleging that they were forced to enter the office by the back door and at lunch in a segregated area. The suit was settled for about $300,000, according to several published reports.

That same year, Pat Robertson resigned from the Coalition, saying he had decided to get out of politics. He was succeeded as president by Roberta Combs, head of Robertson’s South Carolina campaign, who closed the Washington office and now runs the organization from a small office in Charleston. The list of creditors includes suppliers of services for the Coalition’s 2002 “Road to Victory” rally in Washington, which featured a star-studded lineup of speakers including now-indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Another costly legal donnybrook was a 2002 lawsuit brought by Focus Direct Inc., a San Antonio direct-mail company that claimed it hadn’t been paid for printing and mailing tens of millions of “voter guides” for the coalition during the 2000 presidential election. Coalition staffer Drew Missick once claimed that the organization sent 2 million of the guides into Florida alone, helping deliver the evangelical vote to George . Bush in that crucial state. The suit was finally settled in 2004 for $200,000.

In an interview, Combs said she has actually cleaned up the Coalition’s act since she took it over. “In 1999, when I came into the national organization, it had debt then. It has less debt now.... I had to do a lot of creative things.”

“The Christian Coalition is going to be around for a long time,” she added. “I really believe that with all my heart.”

Battered, bruised and downsized as it is, the group still doggedly pursues its agenda—and continues to lock horns with feminists. This is, after all, the organization whose founder, Robertson, once famously called feminism “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

In recent years, the Coalition has been active in promoting the so-called partial-birth abortion ban, as well as measures prohibiting the transportation of minors across state lines for abortions and requiring doctors to tell women their fetuses feel pain.

And that’s just for starters. The holy grail for the Coalition, as it is for other groups on the religious right, is total recriminalization of abortion. A posting on the Coalition’s Web log last September laid out the strategy in unusually candid terms: “For those of us who have been fighting for the past several decades to overturn America’s most infamous, by far, Supreme Court decision, the Roe v. Wade decision, until we do that we are determined to nickle [sic] and dime ‘legal’ abortion out of existence.”

That is, if they don’t first get sued out of existence themselves. Robertson called feminism “a socialist, anti-family movement that encourages women to become lesbians.”