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Firm foundation?

Religion | Bankrupt Council of Churches turns to lobbyists and foundations

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

For at least the past two years, many pronouncements and statements from the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its general secretary, Bob Edgar, have been increasingly strident, critical of the Bush administration, and supportive of liberal Democratic viewpoints.

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington-based conservative research and advocacy group, may have discovered why. He monitored the NCC Governing Board's fall meeting in New York and learned that the NCC now receives more money from private foundations-most of them secular and politically liberal -than from its member denominations ($1.76 million vs. $1.75 million the last fiscal year).

In a bid to stave off bankruptcy of the NCC five years ago, Mr. Edgar-a former Democratic congressman-turned to foundations for funding. Most of their grants went to NCC political work, such as pushing for stricter environmental regulations and greater liberal voter turnout, and opposing U.S. foreign policy-mirroring the agendas of the foundations, Mr. Tooley noted.

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The rhetoric got too hot for even some liberal NCC leaders. In response to a blistering fundraising letter the NCC sent to thousands of churches earlier this year, the United Methodist Church's ecumenical agency urged the NCC to "avoid partisan politics" and adopt a "more temperate tone." The letter, Mr. Tooley said, appealed for donations to the NCC to defeat the alleged totalitarian ambitions of a vast right-wing conspiracy involving President Bush, Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, the IRD, and others. (The letter led to the withdrawal of the Antiochian Orthodox Church from the NCC.)

Mr. Edgar insisted to board members that the foundation money goes to church-based programs and doesn't "dilute our responsibility to the churches."

By the book

Defrocked: Irene "Beth" Stroud, 35, a self-acknowledged, non-celibate lesbian minister in Philadelphia. The highest court of the 8.1-million-member United Methodist Church upheld 6-2 a church jury's decision that found Ms. Stroud guilty of engaging in practices the UMC declares are incompatible with Christian teaching. In so doing, the high court also threw out an appeals panel decision that set aside the original jury's verdict on technical grounds. The UMC bans practicing homosexuals from serving as clergy. Ms. Stroud said she will remain on the job at her church as a "lay minister."

The high court also reinstated with back pay UMC minister Ed Johnson, whom Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer had suspended from his church in South Hill, Va. She took the action after he refused to accept into church membership an open and active gay man (though Mr. Johnson did not ban him from attending church services). During counseling sessions, the gay man had declined to abide by the denomination's teachings on homosexuality. The court ruled 5-3 that Virginia officials had denied the pastor due process, and it asserted the church's book of rules indeed "invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership."

Property rights

Once again, California judge David Velasquez said three Orange County breakaway Episcopal churches can keep their property. But this time he ruled against the national denomination itself; his earlier decision went against the local diocese. He said the Episcopal Church had staked its claim to the property "solely on canonical law" involving a trust clause unilaterally adopted by the denomination in 1979. But property deeds, articles of incorporation, and state statutes also must be taken into account, he said, and these favored the defendants. Other appeals are ahead, and the case could eventually end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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