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FOCUS ON ISSUES Critics skeptical of new agenda advanced by Christian Coalition

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (JTA) — The Christian Coalition has unveiled a legislative plan for the 105th Congress that attempts to put forth a kinder, gentler face. Promoting racial tolerance, rebuilding inner cities and combating drugs and poverty are central elements of “The Samaritan Project” — a set of priorities designed to expand the group’s appeal to racial minorities. But ideological opponents of the conservative Christian lobby, including most of the organized Jewish community, are skeptical of the group’s new tack. They see it as creative repackaging of a familiar agenda that continues to threaten the constitutional separation of church and state. While welcoming the Christian Coalition’s concern for the poor, critics dismissed it as a transparent ploy to channel government funds to religious institutions. The new focus comes in the wake of an election that produced mixed results for the Christian Coalition. The group and its agenda fared well in evangelical strongholds, but failed to make gains in mainstream America. The push to reach out to minorities, moreover, coincides with a similar effort announced last month by GOP leaders. “For too long, our movement has been a predominantly — frankly, almost exclusively — white, evangelical, Republican movement whose political center of gravity has centered in the safety of the suburbs,” Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said at a news conference here last week. The group is calling on Congress to provide tuition vouchers for poor children to attend private or parochial schools. It also wants government to allow drug rehabilitation programs run by churches to receive taxpayer money. Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, called the approach a “cosmetic rearrangement” of the Christian Coalition’s traditional agenda “under the guise of a new preoccupation with the plight of the disadvantaged and minorities.” David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, agreed. “Their real priorities remain changing the Constitution to tear down the wall separating church and state, securing government funding for their overtly sectarian religious operations and enacting their social legislation on abortion and gay rights,” he said. But not everyone in the Jewish community shares that view. Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, sees the Christian Coalition’s new focus on racial outreach and helping the urban poor as a “sincere attempt” to bring disparate groups together to address social ills. “To me it’s sound and it’s right and it’s good for our country and it’s good for Jews,” Eckstein said. He said Jewish groups that do not recognize areas where government and religious institutions can form partnerships “are missing the boat.” “They are stuck in a fossilized, absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment,” he said. Standing with black ministers and Hispanic community activists last week, Reed unveiled what he called a “bold plan that shatters the color line and bridges that gap that has separated us from our African American and Latino brothers and sisters.” In addition to tuition vouchers and church-run drug-rehabilitation programs, the agenda calls on government to: * Give $500 tax credits to those who give both money and at least 10 hours of their time to local charities. * Discourage divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Critics see the proposals as a “watering down” of the “Contract With the American Family,” the Christian Coalition’s agenda for the last Congress. That plan, defeated on most fronts, featured calls for constitutional amendments banning abortion and allowing for prayer in public schools. Variations on those themes are contained in the new agenda, but Reed downplayed them in favor of the coalition’s focus on the plight of the disadvantaged. He said, however, that the group’s new focus would “augment the issues we’re working on, not replace them.” Opponents of such issues are convinced that some of the group’s more radical proposals on issues such as school prayer and abortion still form the basis of the group’s core agenda. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, believes that the Christian Coalition’s goal “remains a country where government doles out aid to churches and religious schools, tries to impose religious beliefs on all citizens and advances an agenda to restrict personal decision-making on matters of morals and family values.” Some of the coalition’s key legislative items, meanwhile, have already garnered support on Capitol Hill. The Republican leadership has incorporated into its agenda proposals for vouchers, banning partial birth abortions and allowing certain church-run programs to receive government funding. It remains to be seen how the new agenda will be received by the Christian Coalition’s membership — 1.7 million strong by its own count.