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Churches face risk in taking sides

Ever since Moses triumphed over Pharaoh, labor and clergy have proven to be a potent team in protest.

Yet only recently have cold-war era differences eased between pickets and parishioners in the United States. So when workers and people of faith today stand shoulder-to-shoulder, it's usually only after soul searching within the church.

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Such strains have surfaced from a campaign to change the employment and environmental practices of the $1.6 billion poultry industry dominating the Delmarva Peninsula.

The initiative leads some churchgoers to say that in taking sides, the church loses its credibility to mediate disputes.

Others say churches merely fear losing their collection plates and are shirking a duty to quash injustice.

The main Christian denominations mirror the ambivalence. They back basic work-er rights in clear declarations but rarely urge grass-roots efforts to join picket lines.

"It takes some risks, and the biggest one is the almsplate," says the Rev. Jim Lewis, leader of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance. "Big Chicken grew very big, very fast and now it's stepping on a lot of people and the problem is Big Chicken pays the pastor not to raise the issue," he says.

But reconciliation, not division, should be the church's aim, says the Rev. Glenn Catley, minister at Asbury United Methodist Church, the Salisbury, Md. church where the Perdue chicken family gathers.

"There is a role for the church where there is injustice and that role is fairness," says Mr. Catley. "The church can't jump to conclusions but has to be a place where information is gathered and people can talk to each other," he says: "it has to be a mediator not a side taker."

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