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Palin has blurred church-state line, review finds

Published: Sunday, Oct. 12 2008 12:15 a.m. MDT

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talks with visiting Rabbi Yossi Greenberg at the Anchorage Congregation Beth Sholom synagogue on June 16. Since late 2006, Palin has spent more than $13,000 in taxpayer funds to attend at least 10 religious events and meetings.

Office of the Governor of Alaska

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WASILLA, Alaska — The camera closes in on Sarah Palin speaking to young missionaries, vowing from the pulpit to do her part to implement God's will from the governor's office.

What she didn't tell worshippers gathered at the Wasilla Assembly of God church in her hometown was that her appearance that day came courtesy of Alaskan taxpayers, who picked up the $639.50 tab for her airplane tickets and per diem fees.

An Associated Press review of the Republican vice presidential candidate's record as mayor and governor reveals her use of elected office to promote religious causes, sometimes at taxpayer expense and in ways that blur the line between church and state.

Since she took state office in late 2006, the governor and her family have spent more than $13,000 in taxpayer funds to attend at least 10 religious events and meetings with Christian pastors, including Franklin Graham, the son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, records show.

Palin was baptized Roman Catholic as a newborn and baptized again in a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church when she was a teenager. She has worshipped at a nondenominational Bible church since 2002, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and supports classroom discussions about creationism.

Since she was named as John McCain's running mate, Palin's deep faith and support for traditional moral values have rallied conservative voters who initially appeared reluctant to back his campaign.

On a weekend trip from the capital in June, a minister from the Wasilla Assembly of God blessed Palin and Lt. Gov Sean Parnell before a crowd gathered for the "One Lord Sunday" event at the town's hockey rink. Later in the day, she addressed the budding missionaries at her former church.

"As I'm doing my job, let's strike this deal. Your job is going to be out there, reaching the people — (the) hurting people — throughout Alaska," she told students graduating from the church's Masters Commission program. "We can work together to make sure God's will be done here."

A spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, Maria Comella, said the state paid for Palin's travel and meals on that trip, and for other meetings with Christian groups, because she and her family were invited in their official capacity as Alaska's first family. Parnell did not charge the state a per diem or ask to be reimbursed for travel expenses that day.

"I understand the per diem policy is, I can claim it if I am away from my residence for 12 hours or more. And Anchorage is where my residence is and I'm based from. And this trip took about four hours of driving time and time at the event, so I did not claim per diem for this one," Parnell told the AP.

Palin and her family billed the state $3,022 for the cost of attending Christian gatherings exclusively, including visits to the Assembly of God here and to the congregation they attend in Juneau, according to expense reports reviewed by the AP.

Experts say those trips fall into an ethically gray area, since Democrats and Republicans alike often visit religious venues for personal and official reasons.

J. Brent Walker, who runs a group based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for church-state separation, said based on a reporter's account, Palin's June excursion raised questions.

"Politicians are entitled to freely exercise their religion while in office, but ethically if not legally that part of her trip ought to not be charged to taxpayers," said Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "It's still fundamentally a religious and spiritual experience she is having."

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