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Clergy deplore budget cuts that hurt the poor --
and make sure the Speaker knows it

by Leslie Tune and Philip E. Jenks

Washington, November 3, 2005 -- Religious leaders came to Capitol Hill Thursday to express their indignation over proposed cuts to the 2006 Federal Budget that will hurt persons most in need, and didn't miss a beat when they found themselves face to face with the Speaker of the House.

The high-level meeting was unplanned, but the clergy lost no time telling Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that proposed $35 billion to $50 billion in cuts to social programs was appalling and immoral.

The four leaders of Protestant, mainline, evangelical and reform Jewish traditions had just completed a press conference in the Capitol's Mansfield Room and were on their way to the rotunda to pray when Hastert returned from a meeting on the Senate side of the Capitol.

"They gave him an earful,"
said another clergyman, one of about 20 clergy who were also on their way to pray in the rotunda.

Hastert appeared surprised but kept smiling throughout the brief encounter. Witnesses said he responded with "grunts and comments" to the clergy's questions, but pictures indicate the Speaker was calm and gracious.

The four clergy -- the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory, director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Washington Office -- held a press conference to deplore congressional efforts "to balance the budget on the backs of the poor."

Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., president of the National Council of Churches USA and Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and Mississippi, joined the press conference by telephone.

People of faith know that God has expressed a bias in favor of the poor, Edgar said. "We religious leaders cannot be the conscience of the President or members of Congress, but we come here today to remind them whose side God is on. We call on all representatives of good will to remember God's bias when they vote on cuts."

"What would Jesus cut?" asked Wallis. "Dust off the Bible, my friends, and do some Bible study."

Wallis cautioned members of Congress that the people he talks to in the districts are not in favor of the proposed cuts. "In the light of Hurricane Katrina, when people hear about increasing tax cuts for the rich and cutting $35 billion - $50 billion in services to the poor, they are appalled."

"Congress has been actively targeting the poor and the middle class since the hurricane," Saperstein said. "At the very time when the Congress should have been increasing the number of social programs, we find they have decimated them. It is simply morally unjustifiable."

Giddings Ivory cited Bible passages to explain the anger of religious leaders. "Our understanding of the Bible is that God calls us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8)"

She also quoted Mathew 26:44-45 and suggested Congress was in the position of asking Jesus, "when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you."

"You did it to the 37 million who live below the poverty level," Giddings Ivory declared.

"I serve in a place where we are talking to people who are homeless, no place to go, money is not there from day to day, health care is not there," Hoyt s
aid. "They move from place to place depending on the powers that be to support their livelihood. Unfortunately, 'compassionate conservatism' in this atmosphere is an oxymoron."

The poor need a compassionate government, not a punitive one, Hoyt said. "The Bible says, where your money is, there is your heart as well. This government needs a heart transplant so it will take care of the poor and racial minorities."

Edgar recalled the words of the late Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1971. "He said there was a moral test for government, and the same test applies to the private sector and to the church," he said. "The moral test is how we treat those in the dawn of life, the young; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life, the needy, the disabled."

Edgar also recalled President Bush's visit to New Orleans when he promised a new understanding and fresh support for the poor.

"We remind the President that it feels like a slap in the face when he supports the poor on national television but urges Congress to 'push the envelope' on cuts," he said.

"Remember, Mr. President, whose side God is on."

Click here for more pictures.
(Photos by Vince Isner, FaithfulAmerica)

Contact NCC News, Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2252, or Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350


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