- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2001

A large number of conservative pastors, most of them Baptists, have joined forces with liberal Protestants and Jews to oppose President Bushs charitable choice provisions. About 850 of them expressed themselves in an open letter to the president, sent to the White House last week.
The April 24 letter said the provisions "would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way. 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."
The letter was sponsored by the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination. Formed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, it includes liberal Protestants, Reform Jews and secular groups such as Planned Parenthood, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Signatories included three Wiccan priestesses, members of an denomination of homosexual congregations, many Reform rabbis, Unitarians, Episcopalians and United Methodists.
The signers include the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Nebraska cleric who was defrocked for presiding over several same-sex "wedding" ceremonies. A liberal Catholic nun, Sister Maureen Fiedler, also signed.
Nevertheless, many Baptists, arguing that they are bound by the historic Baptist belief in absolute separation of church and state, have joined the ad hoc coalition. The Rev. Ted Fuson, pastor of Culpeper Baptist Church in Culpeper, Va., says he signed because he felt religious freedom was at stake.
"We shouldnt receive money directly into church coffers," he said. "The folks that send the money tend to tell you what to do with it and rightfully so, if you are taking tax dollars.
"I want to reach people for Christ, but I do not want to get into the position where, if I had a school or ministry that feeds the homeless, where I could not pray with those folks or ask them about their relationship with the Lord."
Culpeper, he added, was where 19-year-old Baptist preacher James Ireland was jailed for several months in 1769 because he did not have a license from the Anglican-dominated Virginia state government. Baptists founded a church there in 1774.
"For that reason," he said, "the separation of church and state has strong support here in Culpeper, so there is more than one reason for my personal signing of that letter."
The phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in any legal American document, including the Constitution. The term appeared in a private letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.
Still, "Baptists particularly champion the separation of church and state idea," said Bob Patterson, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. "We were always against a state church.
"In any of our Baptist history courses in schools and seminaries, we heard how difficult it was to be a Baptist in the first place. We opposed the union of church and state in England, where many Baptists died in prison under King James in the early 1600s."
Signatories do not include any recent presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, or heads of Southern Baptist seminaries or agencies.
Of the Baptist pastors who signed, many appear to be "moderates" whose churches for theological and other reasons have affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a moderate group, while maintaining membership in the Southern Baptist Convention. The first signatory to the letter, the Rev. Gary Abbott of First Baptist church of Milledgeville, Ga., is a member of the CBF, as are the pastors of several other Georgia congregations who signed.
Mr. Patterson confirmed that at least five of the nine North Carolina pastors who signed on are aligned with the CBF.
"With the exception of a handful, these are moderate churches," said Tom Strode of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The Rev. Stan Hastey of Alliance of Baptists, a moderate who signed the letter, said its message should nevertheless resonate with all shades of Baptists.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, the United Church of Christ minister who heads Americans United, says clergy continue to sign the document.
"I cannot think of an issue in all of Washington where 850 clergy have agreed to something this specific," he said. "We wanted this ad to demonstrate the scope and breadth of opposition to this. We want to make it clear that (charitable choice) is something where there is deep division in the religious community."
Charitable choice is a section in the 1996 welfare law that gives states leeway to contract with religious groups to deliver welfare services.
The law is intended to help faith-based groups receive government support to run programs — without sacrificing their religiousness. The law spells out restrictions to protect the groups and the recipients and to ensure that government money isnt spent on sectarian activities.


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