When the House and Senate Republican Conferences assembled a 32-member religious advisory panel for their "faith-based summit," GOP leaders probably thought it would be the least controversial aspect of their contentious effort to create publicly funded church-state partnerships.
What began, however, as an opportunity for elected GOP officials to rally support for faith-based legislation ultimately became an unwelcome distraction for summit supporters and valuable ammunition for its opponents.
Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), as chairman of the House Republican Conference, had an opportunity to make the panel as representative of America's diversity as he wanted. Instead, the selections became an embarrassment for the entire project.
Research conducted by Americans United for Separation of Church and State showed that several of the committee's invited members made insulting and intolerant comments about religious, ethnic and other minority groups.
Bishop J. Delano Ellis, for example, was selected to participate despite being fired from serving as Cleveland's police chaplain in 1995 after delivering a sermon in which he said Jews were "carnal, selfish...dirty and lowdown and wicked." His sermon, which was broadcast over the radio, also said Jews had mistreated others through the years and "God allowed Hitler to rise up and make you all suffer."
Ellis, pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Christ in Cleveland, also criticized African Americans who convert to Islam, concluding that Islam is "as bad as Israel" and "a chance which you just don't want to take." Ellis had similar difficulties with Islam later that year when, in a letter to his congregation, he called Islam "false" and said that at its worst, the religion was "bloody and dangerous."
The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, another Watts panelist, has offered some of the most extreme anti-gay rhetoric of any activist in the country. In recent years, he has written monthly fundraising letters on imagined threats from gay people. His January 2001 fundraising letter, for example, predicted a "homosexual invasion," which could result in the "stealing of our children." In 1985, Sheldon even supported quarantining AIDS patients in what he called "cities of refuge."
In addition, the Rev. Reggie White, another selected member of the committee, offended virtually every ethnic group in the nation during a speech to the Wisconsin legislature in 1998. White sparked outrage by calling attention to crass stereotypes, saying that blacks "like to sing and dance," while whites "know how to tap into money." He went on to say that Hispanic people are "gifted" because they "can put 20 or 30 people in one home," while Asians know how to "turn a television into a watch." American Indians, he added, were spared slavery in the U.S. because they "knew how to sneak up on people." White also said the nation has strayed from God by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant."
AU's Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to the Republican congressional leadership on April 17 and asked that the three offending participants be removed from the panel.
"An influential honor, such as working with Congress to develop legislation, should not be bestowed on those who use language that divides and denigrates Americans," Lynn said in his letter. "It was wrong for these men to make bigoted remarks; their offense is only exacerbated when the United States Congress rewards their intolerance."
After AU released its research to reporters, the House GOP Conference started getting calls from staffers at national publications. Suddenly, Ellis' name was moved from one spot to another on a list of panelists posted on a website created for the summit by the Republican Conferences. Shortly thereafter, the list was removed from public view altogether.
Pressure also mounted from within the panel when the only two Jewish members of the 32-person committee, Nathan Diament and Seth Leibsohn, expressed reservations about serving with someone who called Jews "wicked" and never apologized.
Seth Leibsohn, former staff coordinator for the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he would have considered resigning to avoid working alongside Ellis.
"I myself could not in good conscience work with anyone who made these comments if they are accurate and they have not been atoned for," Leibsohn told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Ultimately, the controversy drove Ellis from the panel; his resignation became public April 24, the day before the summit began.
While AU's Lynn was pleased to see Ellis leave the committee, unresolved questions linger about why these selections were made in the first place.
"It was absolutely shocking to see some of the people who were chosen to help create federal policy on church-state partnerships," Lynn said. "Some of these selections reflect remarkably poor judgment on the part of J.C. Watts and the House GOP Conference."