Doug Garth gets passionate when he talks about the need for blacks to vote.
"This election in November is so important. Our people in the black community have lagged behind in getting involved in the electoral process. Some don't know the struggles we went through just to get to vote," he said.
Garth, who works in the insurance business in Lexington, was one of about 200 people who congregated at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on East Fifth Street in Lexington on Sunday night for this year's kickoff service for Operation Turnout.
The initiative that started in 2010 is designed to register, inform and commit minority voters for the fall elections.
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Figures were not readily available on how many people Operation Turnout had registered to vote two years ago.
About 25 churches in Central Kentucky are involved in the effort to shepherd their congregations to the polls Nov. 6. In coming weeks, they will get information about the candidates' positions on issues and information on how to register to vote.
The Rev. L. Clark Williams, a minister at Shiloh and chairman of Operation Turnout, said voter-registration drives are legal in churches, but pastors cannot advocate from the pulpit for a candidate. That would jeopardize a church's non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service, he said.
The lineup of speakers Sunday night at a service that was evangelical in nature, with strong sermons and rousing music, steered clear of telling people how to vote. But several speakers mentioned President Barack Obama.
The Rev. Prentice Bruton of Evergreen Baptist Church said some members of a "do-nothing" Congress have made it their priority to make Obama a one-term president.
The Rev. Anthony Everett of Nia Community of Faith said health care has become more available for more people "under Obama law."
The Rev. Willis Polk of Imani Baptist Church said black churches "need to be more involved than ever" in voting.
"I wish I could call some names but I think you all know a mess when you see one," he said.
Operation Turnout has scheduled an Oct. 18 public forum at Shiloh for candidates of all political parties in some selected races.
Invitees, Williams said, include representatives of presidential candidates, candidates for Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District seat, state legislative candidates and candidates for Urban County Council Districts 1 and 2.
One candidate — Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Woodford County — got a jump on others by attending Sunday's kickoff service with his wife, Jennifer Chandler.
Williams, the Operation Turnout chairman, said he occasionally is asked whether churches should be involved in holding voter-registration drives, given the principle of separation of church and state.
"We're not actively campaigning for anyone, but you do see in Scripture that prophets and spiritual leaders spoke of government issues," he said.
Lee Jackson, a member of Operation Turnout's steering committee and former president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said black churches are the best places to get minorities registered, because they usually are the largest buildings in the communities.
"People, for the most part, have been supportive of this," he said.