NASHVILLE -- The Southern Baptist Convention, a conservative denomination closely aligned with President Bush, said it was offended by the Bush-Cheney campaign's effort to use church rosters for campaign purposes.
''I'm appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
''The bottom line is, when a church does it, it's nonpartisan and appropriate. When a campaign does it, it's partisan and inappropriate," he said. ''I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors' fur the wrong way."
The Bush campaign defended yesterday a memo in which it sought to mobilize church members in support of the president's reelection bid through efforts such as providing church directories to the campaign, arranging for pastors to hold voter registration drives, and talking to various religious groups about the campaign.
Some religious organizations have criticized the document as inappropriate and perhaps having the potential to cause churches to jeopardize their tax-exempt status by becoming involved in partisan politics. A campaign spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said the document, distributed to campaign staff, was well within the law.
''People of faith have a right to take part in the political process, and we're reaching out to every supporter of President Bush to become involved in the campaign," Stanzel said.
One section of the document lists 22 ''coalition coordinator" duties and lays out a timeline for various activities targeting religious voters. By July 31, for example, the coordinator is to:
Send your church directory to your state Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters or give to a BC04 field representative.
Identify another conservative church in your community that we can organize for Bush.
Recruit five people in your church to help with the voter registration project.
Talk to your pastor about holding a citizenship Sunday and voter registration drive.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the effort ''is a shameless attempt to misuse and abuse churches for partisan political ends." Lynn said his organization would be ''watching closely to see how this plays out in the pews."
The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington advocacy group that has been critical of the Christian right, said the document was ''totally inappropriate."
''We are alarmed that this initiative by the Bush-Cheney campaign could lure religious organizations and religious leaders into dangerous territory where they risk losing their tax-exempt status and could be violating the law," Gaddy said.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said ''efforts aimed at transforming houses of worship into political campaign offices stink to high heaven."
None of those groups, however, has been as supportive of the Bush administration as the Nashville-based Southern Baptists. Bush spoke to the Southern Baptists' recent national convention, by video link, for the third year in a row.
Yesterday, Land said: ''It's one thing for a church member motivated by exhortations to exercise his Christian citizenship to go out and decide to work on the Bush campaign or the Kerry campaign. It's another and totally inappropriate thing for a political campaign to ask workers who may be church members to provide church member information through the use of directories to solicit partisan support."