Americans United for Separation of Church and State has criticized White House "Faith Czar" James Towey for suggesting that "fringe" religious groups won't get funding under the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative.
During a Nov. 26 online "Ask the White House" question-and-answer session, Towey was asked about the possibility of Pagan groups getting tax funding to provide services to the poor and needy.
According to the White House transcript of the session, Towey replied, "I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it."
In a letter delivered to Towey today, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn asked the administration official to apologize to members of the Pagan community and reaffirm his support for the principle that government will treat all religions equally.
"Your reply is problematic for several reasons," Lynn wrote to Towey. "Most troublingly, it implies that the Bush administration intends to discriminate against certain faith-groups from the outset. This is a curious stand for you to take, as you have repeatedly insisted that the administration will not play favorites among religious groups under the faith-based initiative."
Lynn urged Towey to retract the comments, writing, "I urge you today, first of all, to apologize to the members of America's Wiccan/Pagan community and, secondly, to reaffirm the administration's commitment to the principle that no religious groups will be summarily excluded from faith-based programs because of prejudicial or inaccurate perceptions of any religious organization."
Lynn charged that Towey and other administration officials have misled the American people by claiming that the faith-based initiative will be open to all religious groups but then asserting that certain groups will be summarily denied funding.
"Government can't play favorites when it comes to religion," Lynn said. "If religiously affiliated social services are funded, it must be done on an even-handed basis. Mr. Towey's recent comments indicate that the administration does not seem to understand this basic principle.
"This incident demonstrates once again that the 'faith-based' initiative is a bad idea," Lynn concluded. "When government tries to fund religious ministries, constitutional problems are inevitable."