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Americans United for Separation of Church and State today joined a broad coalition of clergy urging members of Congress to reject President George W. Bush's plan to funnel tax dollars into "faith-based" organizations.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, joined members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) at a Capitol Hill press conference this afternoon to unveil a letter signed by over 850 members of the clergy expressing strong reservations about the main aspects of the Bush plan.

"Never in American history has the federal government undertaken such a dangerous and unprecedented effort to commingle church and state," Lynn said at the event. "This is a sea change without checking whether there are any holes in the new boat. Indeed, we don't even have any serious peer-reviewed studies or empirical data to show that faith-based social programs work better than secular ones."

Americans United and the other members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination say religious groups should not be given tax aid to run social services unless adequate safeguards are in place to ban religiously based discrimination and ensure public accountability of how such funds are spent.

The petition endorsed by the religious leaders expresses the religious leaders' concerns that the so-called "charitable choice" provisions of the initiative will foster excessive entanglement between religion and government.

"These provisions would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way," the petition asserts. "The flow of government dollars and the accountability for how those funds are used will inevitably undermine the independence and integrity of houses of worship."

AU's Lynn said there is broad concern in the religious community about the Bush initiative, demonstrated by the large number of clergy who have signed the petition.

"In just the last few weeks, we've heard from these 850 men and women, and more join them every day," Lynn said. "In the coming months, we will ask more to join us in urging the president and members of Congress to reject the faith-based initiative currently under consideration.

"The significance of these voices cannot be understated," Lynn added. "Their message should not be dismissed or ignored. These religious leaders agree that there are different paths to promoting community services, but the president's 'faith-based initiative' is a dead end."

The CARD press conference comes the same day as a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on "charitable choice" funding and one day before U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts' (R-Okla.) invitation-only Republican summit for clergy on "faith-based" funding proposals.

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.