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House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told an audience yesterday that President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative" represents "a great opportunity to bring God back into the public institutions of the country" and attacked church-state separation, asserting that it is not in the Constitution.

DeLay, the third ranking Republican in the House, appeared at an invitation-only luncheon gathering for congressional staff organized by TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, charged that DeLay's comments prove that the real intent of the "faith-based initiative" is to weaken or perhaps do away with church-state separation entirely.

"DeLay has removed the sugar coating from this initiative," Lynn said. "At its core lies an ugly and mean-spirited attack on the separation of church and state, the very principle that under girds religious freedom in America."

Lynn noted that Bush has asserted that his initiative will not fund religion or weaken the separation of church and state. DeLay's observations, Lynn asserted, sharply undermine those claims.

During the luncheon address at a House office building, DeLay was asked about the "faith-based initiative." He replied, "I know there are some people that are worried about the faith-based initiative that the president supports. And most of the distress is about that, 'We don't want the federal government coming into our business.' Well, my answer to that is, don't accept the money. But I see it as a great opportunity to bring God back into the public institutions of the country. God has been removed from all of our public institutions."

DeLay then added that the initiative would be a way of "standing up and rebuking this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last 40 or 50 years. You see, I don't believe there is a separation of church and state. I think the Constitution is very clear. We have the right and the freedom to exercise our religion no matter what it is anywhere we choose to do it. We have an opportunity to once again get back into the public arena."

AU's Lynn said DeLay could not be more wrong.

"Contrary to DeLay's misguided comments, the principle of church-state separation has not held religion back in this country," Lynn said. "Just the opposite is true; the First Amendment has created an environment where religion can flourish without aid or interference from the government.

"DeLay claims separation of church and state is a recent invention," Lynn added. "In fact, as long ago as 1879, a unanimous Supreme Court agreed with the writings of Thomas Jefferson and ruled that the First Amendment created a 'wall of separation between church and state.' It's a tragedy that the House Majority Whip denigrates the very freedoms he has sworn to uphold."

The Texas Republican went on to say that the reason some social programs have failed is because they do not recognize "that man is sinful and the redemption of man is through Jesus Christ or if you're Jewish through practicing your religion."

Concluded Lynn, "In an unguarded moment, Tom DeLay has ripped the mask off the Bush initiative. He wants to use it to launch a crusade to force government-sponsored religion onto the American people and demolish the wall of separation between church and state. Nothing could be more inappropriate or dangerous."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.