WASHINGTON, March 6 (RNS)--Criticizing the 1990 census for leaving out an estimated 8 million people in the United States, religious and civil rights leaders Monday joined the director of the U.S. Census Bureau to campaign for a more inclusive census for the year 2000.

"We in the religious community have a long track record of standing up for a good census that really counts all the people with all the benefits the knowledge thereof provides," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"Only when (the census) is accurate can we truly assess how all Americans are doing, how every community is faring, and what we need to do to ensure equality and justice for all. When it is not accurate...we put blinders on our ability to see the needs of others. Not only do we cease to be our brother and sister's keeper, we deny their very existence," Saperstein said.

The census, constitutionally required to be taken once a decade, determines the division of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and provides a formula for the distribution of federal money under a host of programs. The 1990 census has been widely criticized for missing some 8 million people, especially those living in the nation's inner cities.

Efforts to introduce new methods of counting rather than the self-reporting and door-to-door canvassing currently in use have been rejected by Congress.

Saperstein was joined by religious leaders from faith groups as varied as the American Muslim Foundation and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who called on their colleagues to mobilize congregations to participate in the upcoming census.

"An inaccurate census is a serious threat," said the Rev. J.C. Hope, director of religious affairs for the NAACP. "By itself, the census cannot guarantee political equality and social justice or economic opportunity. However, without an accurate census too many people simply don't count. Whole communities are denied equal access to resources of this nation.

"We call on all our entities in the religious community and the broader civil rights community to continue educating people on the need for an accurate census," Hope said.

Religious leaders and institutions can be particularly effective in encouraging participation in the census, said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"Our friends in the religious community have an ability to reach the public in a way that no other group can possibly do," said Henderson. "They have the trust of many people that we represent, and those people are willing to listen to the counsel of these religious leaders and the institutions they represent because they know these groups have a track record, a history, of delivering on behalf of their constituency.

"And when they add their voices to the voices of the Census Bureau and the voices of civil rights leaders, we think that message will be reinforced in a positive way and we'll get the benefit of having every person in our society counted," Henderson said.

The Census Bureau has mailed hundreds of information packets to

religious leaders nationwide encouraging them to educate their congregations about the importance of an accurate census, said Kenneth Prewitt, bureau director.

He said faith groups are better able than many others to reach groups historically underrepresented in census counts, particularly those who fear information disclosed on a census form will be released to other government agencies.

"There is a pocket of the population for which the fear of confidentiality operates as a deterrent, and that clearly is predominantly among the undocumented, and is predominantly among people living in housing conditions which they know to violate either local zoning rules or sometimes landlord prerogatives," said Prewitt. "And it is extremely important that the church, which is in close contact with those populations, carry the message of confidentiality."

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