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A church-state pact?

January 13, 1997

As part of his inaugural festivities, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood held a 90-minute prayer service Sunday, during which he asked churches to join with the state to fight illiteracy, joblessness and poor health habits. Whether they respond will depend on whether the governor can keep the promises he made in his speech.

Underwood said he was not attempting to breach the wall of separation between church and state. Cooperation among citizens will not be ordered by the government, he said, but "sparked by the level of trust we have in each other."

Trust is the key, because more than a few churches have expressed concern about which responsibilities might get shifted to them when the safety net provided by government is trimmed back. Any attempt to formalize the programs churches handle by adding government regulations, inspections and the like will chase houses of worship away from these tasks.

That said, however, Underwood has a point when he says that churches have facilities - meeting rooms and the like - that are only in use one or two days a week. Using this space for literacy training classes, for example, makes good sense. It is also consistent with churches' mission of encouraging members to love their neighbors by helping them get skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

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We see two obstacles to progress. Elected officials have too often sought voters' approval by making a show of religion. Underwood insisted this was not the case, saying that the service was not held "so I can wear righteousness on my sleeve." He still must prove it, although asking for help, rather than trying to shame the churches into joining his cause, was a good first step.

The second obstacle is the stubbornness of those holding onto the poor health habits - smoking and alcohol/drug abuse - that increase the state's health-care costs. In this case, those who engage in these behaviors must be inspired to give them up, a job that is definitely more spiritual than political. We wish the governor good luck nevertheless.

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