In a surprise move, the Christian Coalition of America has come out in support of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's plan to restructure the state's taxes, breaking ranks with the religious-right organization's state chapter, which is leading opposition against the measure.
National Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs made unannounced visits in cities across Alabama Wednesday to tout the Republican governor's tax plan, which is up for vote in a statewide referendum next month.
The $1.2 billion tax package, aimed at erasing budget deficits and reforming an antiquated tax structure that advocates say overburdens the poor, includes the largest tax increase in the state's history.
Riley, a Southern Baptist, is appealing to Christian voters in the Bible Belt to support the proposal as a matter of conscience.
"According to our Christian ethics, we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor," he told USA Today. "It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax."
The Christian Coalition of Alabama passed a resolution in May opposing the raising of taxes and blaming the state's budget woes on "years of poor stewardship and fiscal irresponsibility."
"The Christian Coalition is unable to support any new permanent tax proposals to cure historical systemic failures and poor public policy of reckless and unmerited spending habits," the state group said in the statement.
In an unprecedented split between the national Christian Coalition and a state chapter, however, Combs traveled to Alabama this week to urge the organization's members and other people of faith to support what she called a "bold and courageous initiative."
"The Christian Coalition of America supports Gov. Riley's plan for tax reform, because it is clearly and unquestionably designed to help the least among us and asks those who are most able to pay their share," Combs said in a statement. "At the same time, the governor's proposal ensures the protection of important family programs and services that face imminent risk of significant funding cuts. We believe the governor's proposal is both visionary and courageous."
John Giles, head of Alabama's Christian Coalition, said he was caught off guard by Combs' announcement. According to the Mobile Register, Giles said it violated tenets of the Christian Coalition and hinted that political chicanery might have been a factor.
Riley's press secretary, David Azbell, denied that there were any backroom deals. He said that Combs' endorsement means that in opposing the tax proposal "John Giles is speaking for John Giles and not for the Christian Coalition."
Combs downplayed the split, calling it a difference of opinion. She acknowledged that she was unaware of another instance of a state chapter and the national organization offering conflicting opinions on an issue. State and national leaders normally work together on statements, she said, but Alabama coalition leaders did not discuss the tax plan with national leaders before issuing a statement.
Giles told the Mobile newspaper that Christian Coalition policies don't require state chapters to consult with the national organization before issuing statements. "We're separate," he said. "We do not answer to each other."
The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by broadcaster Pat Robertson after his unsuccessful campaign for president in 1988, usually opposes tax increases. Combs, former head of the Christian Coalition's South Carolina chapter and an executive vice president under Robertson, succeeded the founder as national president in 2001.
Giles, a former aid to Alabama Gov. Fob James and Gov. Guy Hunt, was hired in 1999 as head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama.
The Christian Coalition of America gave Riley 100-percent approval of his voting record during six years in Congress prior to his election as governor.
Riley, who took office in January, is a member of First Baptist Church in Ashland, Ala., where he taught a men's Sunday school class for several years and chaired the church's board of trustees.
Some observers believe the tax plan's failure or success depends in large part on response from the state's churches. Religious leaders led opposition to the previous governor's plan to raise funds for education through a statewide lottery, and Baptist, Methodist and Episcopal organizations have issued statements supporting reform of Alabama's tax system.
While the religious groups share a conviction that the tax structure ought to be changed, there's less consensus about details of this specific plan. While some religious leaders have spoken out in favor of the proposal, others are opting to leave the decision up to people in the pew.
Leaders of the Alabama Baptist State Convention have designated Sept. 7 a "day of prayer" about the tax-reform package, which is scheduled for referendum Sept. 9.
The Baptist state convention passed a resolution in 2000 urging reform of Alabama's regressive tax system, but convention officers issuing a statement July 25 said "diverse opinions" exist on the particular plan approved by the Legislature and backed by the governor.
"Because no one person can speak for all Baptists, we are encouraging Baptists to seek God's will in this matter through prayer," Joe Godfrey, president of the state's Baptists, told the Alabama Baptist newspaper.
Henry Cox, the state convention's first vice president, added that if Alabama Baptists will "seek the Lord's guidance and study the proposal carefully…the right thing will happen…even if we don't know what the right thing is."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Also see BCE editorial "Cheers for Republican Governor Riley and Tax Reform."