Religious leaders from some of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the nation held a press conference yesterday to express reservations with controversial provisions of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative.
Representatives from the Baptist, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker and United Church of Christ traditions spoke at a Capitol Hill press event to discuss their concerns with the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7), a measure sponsored by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) that mirrors the White House plan.
The groups said the "charitable choice" provisions of the bill raise a number of critical questions that are yet to be answered. (Under charitable choice, churches and other ministries would get government grants and contracts with virtually no church-state safeguards.)
"(T)he concerns of the religious community about H.R. 7 have not been adequately addressed," the groups said in a joint statement. They added, "The legislative pace for expansion of 'charitable choice' has accelerated in recent days, to the detriment of meaningful deliberation and debate. We urge members of Congress to slow down and proceed with caution so that the concerns of the religious community may be heard."
Of particular concern to the groups is the inclusion in the plan of federally funded employment discrimination.
"While we may differ in out approaches to faith-based initiatives, we stand together in our opposition to any discrimination in the delivery of social services," the groups said.
While not mentioning the president by name, the religious leaders appeared to take issue with some recent comments from Bush about critics of the initiative.
While speaking in Tampa earlier this month, Bush said opponents of the faith-based measure "don't understand the power of faith and the promise of faith and the hope of faith."
The religious leaders responded, "We are...united by a strong belief that opposition to a specific legislative initiative should not be dismissed as a lack of understanding 'the power of faith.' It is dangerous to create a litmus test that is based on support for a specific legislative proposal."
Among the speakers at the press conference was James Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, the social action agency of Bush's own denomination.
"Charitable choice as set forth in existing law and as proposed in H.R. 7 clearly contradicts the minimum requirements set forth by our church as to what must be in place before a religious group accepts tax dollars in order to provide social services," Winkler said. "We believe that charitable choice as presently designed is not the right way to help the needy nor is it the best way to foment healthy church-government relations."
The concerns expressed by the Protestant groups have been echoed in recent months by religious leaders from across the theological spectrum.
"The more people in the religious community hear about the faith-based plan, the more they dislike it," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the leading national opponent of the White House faith-based initiative.
Lynn pointed to the success of a petition drive organized by the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD). The coalition, which AU helps lead, began collecting signatures in April from clergy urging Congress and the president to reject the faith-based initiative. To date, over 1,000 religious leaders from across the country and across the theological spectrum have signed on to the effort.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents members, chapters 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.