Originally created 07/03/97

Christian groups finding friends in Ga. Legislature



ATLANTA - Georgia Christian Coalition leaders found a General Assembly much more friendly to their cause during the 1997 legislative session and gave 54 lawmakers a perfect voting score.

Nearly 40 percent of the state Senate received 100 percent scores, including eight Democrats. On average, senators agreed with the Christian Coalition's position on bills the group deemed important 85 percent of the time.

In the House, 31 of 32 perfect scores went to Republicans; however, many Democrats improved on their past ratings.

"That's better than last time. I got 20-something before," said House Democratic Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, when told he was credited with siding with the Coalition on 60 percent of key votes.

"A conservative Georgia Legislature has maybe become a little more conservative," he added.

However, others didn't think much of the scorecard.

"Is this the same group that said if we voted against term limits, we were not Christian?" asked House Speaker Pro-tempore Jack Connell, D-Augusta, who scored 30 percent, the lowest in the Richmond County delegation. "If I'm not a Christian because I vote against term limitations, I guess that gives you some indication what these scorecards mean."

Mr. Connell said the ratings can be misleading, noting that he was downgraded for votes missed while he was presiding over the House. By tradition, the speaker votes only when needed to break a tie.

The 60,000-member Georgia Christian Coalition has been slammed by Democrats, who argue their widely circulated scorecards and voter guides were deceptive, using minor amendments on fringe issues to distort voting records and favor Republicans.

Nationally, the coalition's ties to the Republican Party are the subject of a complaint to the IRS, which is considering whether the group should maintain its tax-exempt status.

Responding to the criticism this year, the Georgia group handed out booklets giving lawmakers advance notice of the issues the group's leadership was concerned about.

"They knew ahead of time what was important to our members," said Elizabeth Diggs, the Coalition's lobbyist.

Among the votes on which lawmakers were graded were bills or amendments to outlawed "partial-birth" abortions, promoted the teaching of sexual abstinence, restricted teen driving privileges, give HOPE scholarships to home-schooled children, and repeal the requirement that drivers' license applicants be fingerprinted. The home-school and driver license bills were not adopted.

Some more obscure votes also were included, such as an amendment in the House that would have added "respect for the Creator" to the list of items taught in schools as part of character curriculum.

Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, questioned the issues chosen.

"I don't understand how these people think God gives directions about whether we should put fingerprints on drivers' licenses. I'll talk to my pastor about it," said Bordeaux, who went with the Coalition only 20 percent of the time.

Jerry Keen, the group's president, called the session "the most successful we have ever had. We think it's the most family friendly."

He noted the majority of Coalition issues, particularly in the Senate, had bipartisan support, which showed the group's effort to reach out to Democrats has been a success.

Mr. Keen said 50,000 scorecards were initially printed to be distributed by Coalition leaders. He expects that number to eventually rise to about 250,000.