Faith Czar's Comments About 'Fringe Groups' Draw AU Criticism

James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, drew a rebuke from Americans United after he suggested that "fringe" religious groups such as Pagans won't get funding through the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative.

During a Nov. 26 online "Ask the White House" question-and-answer session, the Bush administration's "faith czar" was queried about the possibility of Pagan groups getting tax funds to provide social services to the poor and needy.

According to the White House transcript of the session, Towey replied, "I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it."

In a Dec. 2 letter, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn asked the administration official to apologize to members of the Pagan community and reaffirm his support for the principle that government will treat all religions equally.

"Your reply is problematic for several reasons," Lynn wrote to Towey. "Most troublingly, it implies that the Bush administration intends to discriminate against certain faith-groups from the outset. This is a curious stand for you to take, as you have repeatedly insisted that the administration will not play favorites among religious groups under the faith-based initiative."

Lynn urged Towey to retract the comments, writing, "I urge you today, first of all, to apologize to the members of America's Wiccan/Pagan community and, secondly, to reaffirm the administration's commitment to the principle that no religious groups will be summarily excluded from faith-based programs because of prejudicial or inaccurate perceptions of any religious organization."

Lynn charged that Towey and other administration officials have misled the American people by claiming that the faith-based initiative will be open to all religious groups but then suggesting that certain groups will be summarily denied funding.

"Government can't play favorites when it comes to religion," Lynn said. "If religiously affiliated social services are funded, it must be done on an even-handed basis. Mr. Towey's recent comments indicate that the administration does not seem to understand this basic principle.

"This incident demonstrates once again that the 'faith-based' initiative is a bad idea," Lynn concluded. "When government tries to fund religious ministries, constitutional problems are inevitable."

Lynn added that Towey seems to be misinformed about the Pagan community in the United States. Paganism (or neo-Paganism, as it is sometimes called) is a diverse faith community with nature-based rituals. Traditions within the movement include Wicca, Druidry and other Earth-centered faiths.

After Towey's comments became public, AU asked Pagan activists for information about social-service work done by members of the faith. Examples soon began pouring in.

A sampling includes: The Portal of Light Pantry in southwestern Missouri, a Pagan-run food distribution center that delivers food to elderly and ill people and stays open late so working low-income people who need food can stock up after work; the Rev. Rick Ross' Diamond Charities in Glendora, Calif., which distributes food, blankets and clothing to the homeless; The Spiral Grove, a Pagan worship group in Stephens City, Va., that sponsors a food bank, spearheads clothing collections and provides emergency funds for distressed households; and the Southern Illinois Pagan Alliance, which collects books for hospitalized children, participates in local food and clothing drives and collects new toys for poor children every Christmas.

Despite these efforts, right-wing backers of the Bush faith-based initiative joined in bashing Pagans. Michael Schwartz, vice president of government relations at Concerned Women for America, told Focus on the Family, "Towey's comment was a mere statement of fact. He'd never heard from any faith-based Pagan organizations, didn't know of any charities that are run by organized Pagans and neither have I."

Joe Loconte, a spokesman for The Heritage Foundation, seconded that point of view.

"It's important to remember that in both Christianity and Judaism and Islam, to some degree, the basis for charity is a conviction that every individual is made in the image of God and is the object of divine love and divine grace," Loconte said. "That conviction is missing in Paganism."

Towey refused to comment further on the matter, but Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, told The Washington Post, "The president believes that the faith-based initiative is an important initiative that is not about religion but is about results. Mr. Towey did not intend to convey any ill will toward anyone."

In other news about the faith-based initiative:

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) warned a suburban Chicago audience recently that the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative is misguided.

"What I see is a dangerous trend in the wrong direction," Durbin told about 500 attendees at a forum sponsored by K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park. "What we are seeing are efforts to break down that wall of separation, and that's just wrong. It's just plain wrong."

According to the Chicago Tribune, Durbin also expressed concern about religious groups accepting taxpayer funding yet still engaging in forms of discrimination.