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Baptist lobbyists earn congressional respect

ONE might call it a religious battle. But it's not an inter-church controversy. It's an intra-church confrontation. More specifically, it is an ideological tug-of-war among Baptists -- among factions of the 14.5-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

On one side are those who champion religious independence -- and have long defended the wall of separation between church and state. On the other are those who are less worried about keeping religion and politics apart and more concerned with opposing specific issues, including abortion and pornography. They are dedicated to bringing religion more directly into the school and community.

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The latter -- which recently ascended into power with the election of Memphis minister Adrian Rogers to the SBC presidency -- wear the stripe of fundamentalism and are challenging what they see as ``liberal'' Baptist interpretations of religious freedom.

Caught in the middle is the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJCPA), a denominational lobby, which has effectively argued First Amendment issues here on Capitol Hill for over half a century.

But now BJCPA is threatened with extinction. Fundamentalists have charged that it is out of sync with the convention, particularly in opposing school prayer and aid to parochial education, which, these fundamentalists say, many Baptists favor.

A resolution to de-fund this Baptist religious liberties voice in the nation's capitol was narrowly defeated at SBC's annual meeting in Atlanta this summer. Instead, a fact-finding committee has been appointed to probe charges that the group's objectives clash philosophically with those of the convention. A final decision on the future of BJCPA is due next June.

SBC now accounts for 75 percent of the committee's $600,000 annual budget. James M. Dunn, however, the committee's executive director, insists that even without the convention's support, his lobby will continue to operate -- soliciting support not only from Southern Baptists but also from all Baptists.

The issues are larger than the denomination's internal squabbles, insists Rev. Mr. Dunn. He says that there now is a ``deliberate attempt [in the United States] to collapse the distinction between mixing religion and politics on the one hand and merging church and state on the other.''

BJCPA's chief officer stressed in an interview that his group's main function is the ``commitment to church-state separation as a safeguard for relgious liberty.''

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``[We'll] stand by principles even when that means defending unpopular religions or working with a wide range of persons with different degrees of disagreement,'' Dunn has written.

Oliver Thomas, the committee's general counsel, guides its legislative and litigation agenda.

He insists that Baptists agree on many issues -- such as tax-exempt status for churches and ``equal access'' of religious groups to after-school activities. Many are divided, however, on state-sponsored school prayer, public aid to religious education, and the teaching of ``creationism'' in the classroom.

BJCPA clearly supports the first two; and it firmly opposes the latter three.

This lobby also recently filed a brief in a federal lawsuit challenging the appointment of a US ambassador to the Vatican. (At this writing, the US Supreme Court had not yet decided whether to rule on this case.)

Thomas stresses that, contrary to the finding of a lower court ruling that questions churches' ``standing'' to sue, US religious groups have a strong stake in this issue. ``Churches and other religious organizations have been the objects of official governmental discrimination,'' he says.

``They have suffered a cognizable injury, in fact. They will not enjoy diplomatic access to the President of the United States as will the Roman Catholic Church. They will not enjoy transportation expenses. They will not enjoy certain mailing privileges . . . and other immunities that are conferred upon diplomats,'' Thomas explains.

Another key plank in BJCPA's present agenda is to oppose any plan that would invest federal monies in private education.

Thomas predicts that there will be strong efforts in the coming year, led by Secretary of Education William Bennett, to get Congress to approve a voucher plan for students to attend private schools.

``We would characterize this as aid to parochial schools,'' says BJCPA's lawyer. ``Vouchers would be very bad policy. Also, this is not the time to be beating on the public schools. This is the time to help them,'' Thomas adds.

Looking at the larger picture, BJCPA's counsel -- who is also a Baptist minister -- calls on his denomination to make a firm commitment to religious freedom.

``Baptists need to become Baptists again,'' says Thomas. ``Now that we have eased into the comfortable world of being a majoritarian religion, we have lost some of our principles on church-state separation.

``We have become more willing to accept government money, etc. Perhaps if it became widespread -- and we once again saw the danger apparent in government sponsorship or aid to religion -- we would again reassert our role as Baptists and say: `This must stop!' ''

BJCPA works closely with other Protestant and Jewish groups to keep intact the ``wall'' between government and religion. It also allies itself with the nondenominational Americans United for Separation of Church and State for this same purpose.

This church lobby has drawn praise from both sides of the political aisle. ``They [BJCPA] have helped those of us in Congress to stay abreast of religious liberties issues,'' commented Rep. Jim Wright (D) of Texas, House majority leader. Representative Wright explains that the Baptist committee has provided Congress with ``dependable information'' and worked with lawmakers in ``fine-tuning overseas tax and pension-plan legislation that has saved churches and pastors millions of dollars.''

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon has called the BJCPA ``an indispensable and highly effective Christian witness in Washington, faithful to the Gospel, expert in advancing the free exercise of religion, trustworthy intepreters of the separation of church and state.''

Curtis J. Sitomer, the Monitor's ``Justice'' columnist, writes on legal and religious issues.

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