Helen Thomas, the seasoned White House correspondent whose career has spanned nine presidential administrations, has joined the plethora of prominent Americans to express doubts about President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative.
Thomas, often referred to as the "Dean of the White House Press Corps," grilled Bush about the plan during the president's first press conference yesterday. The Hearst Newspapers columnist suggested Bush has little appreciation for church-state separation.
"Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state?," Thomas asked Bush. "And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that our country has stood in good stead by having the separation -- why do you break it down?"
Bush began to respond, saying, "Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state..." when Thomas interrupted to say, "Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did."
Bush attempted a brief defense, arguing the constitutionality of his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, including a muddled reference to "the line between the separation of church and state."
Thomas reminded the president, "You are a secular official." Bush responded, "I agree, I am a secular official." Thomas shot back, "And not a missionary."
Thomas is the latest of many well-known public figures to express reservations about the Bush plan. Earlier this week, TV preacher Pat Robertson called the public funding of minority faiths under Bush's initiative "appalling." Also this week, representatives of Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities expressed concerns about the plan.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the nation's leading opponent of Bush "faith-based" initiative, applauded Thomas' courageous defense of constitutional principles.
"I think Helen Thomas was speaking for millions of Americans yesterday when she reminded the president of the importance of church-state separation," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "After seeing Bush's priorities unfold in recent weeks, I think he may need additional reminders that he was elected the nation's president, not preacher."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
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.