WASHINGTON, April 26 (RNS)--More than 850 clergy from across the country have signed a petition to President Bush and Congress criticizing proposals to publicly fund faith-based organizations.

Leaders of several groups who have partnered to create the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination unveiled the open letter at a news conference Tuesday (April 24), the day before a scheduled summit co-chaired by J.C. Watts, R-Okla., co-sponsor of a bill that would permit faith-based groups receiving federal funding to discriminate in hiring.

"These provisions would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way," the letter reads. "Exempting government-funded religious institutions from employment laws banning discrimination on the basis of religion weakens our nation's civil rights protections for those seeking to provide assistance to those in need."

The religious leaders worry that the proposed legislation and the plans of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will lead to unconstitutional entanglements of church and state as well as divisions among religious groups competing for public funds.

"Where is the compassion in creating a system where those in need must choose between receiving desperately needed services and the continuation of their civil and religious rights?" asked the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance. "Where is the constitutional integrity in a religiously diverse nation when the government picks and chooses which religions to fund and which to exclude?"

The list of signatories includes, thus far, representatives of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and other congregations.

"This is a broad spectrum that runs everywhere from theologically conservative Baptists to several Wiccan priests and priestesses," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This is about as dramatic a number and collection of people of faith -- ministers, priests rabbis, others in the religious community that I've ever seen come around a single issue in such a short period of time."

Lynda Kosh, who runs a program at Metro Church in Indianapolis, where Bush laid out his faith-based proposal during his campaign, attended the news conference and said afterward that she disagrees with the petition signers.

"It's about choice," she said of the recipients of social services. "They can choose a provider that is faith-based or they can choose a provider that is not."

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