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ERLC fellows urge Romania to rethink religion bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–A group of Southern Baptist ethics specialists has called on the Romanian government to heed concerns about potentially restrictive church-state legislation under consideration.

The fellows of the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, meeting Sept. 21 in Nashville, Tenn., adopted a resolution urging the Romanian Senate and other public officials to reconsider the proposed measure in light of objections raised by Baptists in the Eastern European country. The institute’s fellows commended to the government a written report from the Christian Baptist Union of Romania on the legislation.

In the report, the Romanian union’s president, Paul Negrut, included these items among objections to the legislation:

— The separation of church and state is absent as either a principle or a specific provision.

— The government would fund religious denominations and consolidate control over them. Unlike other denominations in Romania, the Baptist Union has refused to accept government aid.

— Denominational schools would not appear to be free to provide training based upon their doctrines.

The bill has been submitted to the Romanian Senate under an emergency plan, meaning its passage could be imminent, Negrut said in the report.

Since Romania’s communist dictatorship fell in 1989, the government has organized numerous meetings with denominational representatives in an effort to agree upon legislation outlining the relationship between the state and religious bodies, Negrut said. Many of those proposals expressed democratic goals but included policies consistent with Romania’s more repressive history, he said.

“The government has always had a history of involvement with religion and Christian churches in the country,” said R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and a fellow of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

Romania has “never had a history and tradition of separation of church and state,” said Roberts, who was dean of theology at the Institute of Biblical Studies in Oradea, Romania, in 1990-94.

There is “probably a fear that they cannot let the churches go,” he told Baptist Press. “It actually benefits the government a lot more to take their hands off. For whatever reason, they fail to see the importance of allowing total freedom.”

Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president of public policy and director of the Research Institute, said the Romanian government’s desire “to restrict religious freedom in their country is very disheartening. One would think that after decades of oppressive, stifling communist rule, Romanian leadership would resist any effort to restrict the legitimate freedoms of the Romanian people, especially a freedom as basic and universal as religious expression.

“We will continue to expose this threat to religious freedom so that the Romanian people and the rest of the freedom-loving world can know that some of Romania’s leaders appear determined to return to the days of suppression and thought control,” Duke told BP. “God has granted this freedom to men. Therefore no person or government has the legitimate right to take it away.”

In the resolution, the Research Institute fellows said they pray for God’s blessing on Romania.

“We believe that the defense and preservation of free religious practice and conscience is essential to God’s blessings on any nation,” the resolution said. “In this light, we commend this most essential issue to God’s care and provision as well as to the deliberation of the elected leaders of Romania.”

In addition to Duke and Roberts, the fellows participating at the meeting were Steve Lemke, provost and ethics professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; Don Buckley, a physician in Pensacola, Fla.; Jerry Johnson, president of Criswell College in Dallas; Malcolm Yarnell, theological research director and theology professor at Southwestern Seminary; Daniel Heimbach, ethics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.; Craig Mitchell, ethics instructor at Southwestern Seminary, and Jeffrey Riley, ethics professor at New Orleans Seminary.

Roberts encouraged Southern Baptists to contact their senators and representatives about the religious liberty bill in Romania. Members of Congress may be contacted by phone through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or by e-mail through the ERLC’s website, www.faithandfamily.com.