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The United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, has expressed its opposition to key features of President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative."

The Rev. Eliezer Valentin Castanon, of the church's General Board of Church and Society, outlined the denomination's position during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing June 6. Castanon said the church cannot support the "charitable choice" provisions of the Bush plan because they violate church-state separation, subsidize religious discrimination and threaten the independence of churches.

Bush has proposed allowing houses of worship and other religious organizations to receive direct tax aid to provide social services. The "charitable choice" provision is the linchpin--and most controversial aspect--of the president's "faith-based initiative." Now that provision has drawn opposition from the denomination that Bush is a member of.

"We believe that Charitable Choice is not the right way to help the needy nor is it the best way to foment healthy church-government relations," Castanon said.

Castanon said the denomination opposes aspects of the Bush plan that allow religious groups to use federal money yet still discriminate in hiring.

"The United Methodist Church cannot support legislation that clearly endorses religious discrimination in the hiring and firing practices in community social service ministries paid by the federal government," Castanon said. "Our church believes that programs serving the community and funded with federal and state dollars should not be allowed to use faith to discriminate.

"It is one thing," he continued, "for the church to require that their pastors, organists, sextons and other employees of the church to be from their faith and conviction; another thing, entirely, is for religious groups receiving tax dollars, in order to provide secular services, to be allowed to use the same criteria for hiring their employees for government-related programs," he said.

The Methodist official also asserted that giving tax aid to drug rehabilitation programs that emphasize religious conversion would completely cross the church-state boundary.

 "No one can honestly believe that a program funded with tax dollars, which requires as a major component of treatment the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, will not advance religion." (The comments were apparently targeted at Teen Challenge and other drug treatment programs like it that have been praised by Bush.)

"We believe that there are alternatives to continue and expand church-state partnerships without bringing down the wall of separation between church and state, which has protected and enhanced our religious liberties and American democracy," Castanon told the committee.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, welcomed the United Methodists' opposition to the Bush proposal. "Every day more of America's religious leaders realize that 'charitable choice' is little more than an attack on the separation of church and state," said Lynn. "The president should abandon this truly dangerous idea."

The opposition expressed by the Methodists is the latest setback to the "faith-based initiative" among religious and political leaders. Critics from right, left and center have strongly criticized the proposal.

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.