Conservative Christian leaders tell followers not to comply with laws

By Michelle Boorstein and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Conservative Christian leaders unveiled a declaration Friday calling on Christians not to comply with rules and laws forcing them to accept abortion, same-sex marriage and other ideals that go against their religious doctrines.

The declaration urges Christians to practice civil disobedience to defend their convictions, even though some signers of the document backed away from the strong language.

The Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Donald W. Wuerl, was among the first signers of the Manhattan Declaration. He appeared at a news conference in the District on Friday to announce it, even as the Church was considering a city-proposed compromise on its same-sex marriage measure. Church officials say the bill, as it stands, would require faith groups, such as the church-run Catholic Charities, to extend benefits to married same-sex partners, an example of what the declaration's authors see as a violation of religious liberty law.

"We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them," the declaration says. It lists the "fundamental truths" as the "sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty."

The declaration is signed by more than 125 Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical leaders. Other leaders at the news conference at the National Press Club included Cardinal Justin Rigali, outgoing chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities; Pentecostal leader Harry Jackson, pastor of a Beltsville church; and evangelical activist Tony Perkins. Other signers include evangelical leader and Watergate-era figure Chuck Colson and academics Timothy George and Robert George.

The leaders are urging the public to sign the online document.

The declaration notes that Christianity has taught over the centuries "that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required." People who signed the declaration, however, were vague about how they hoped Christians would respond to it.

Wuerl's office played down the civil disobedience wording, saying he wasn't urging Catholics to "do anything specific," said his spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. "That wasn't something we had talked about."

Asked if appearing at the news conference seemed at odds with the spirit of negotiation over the same-sex marriage measure, Gibbs said no. "There's a difference between working out language in a bill and compromising our belief system."

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said, "It's a shame they don't extend the same efforts to issues that really matter, like health care and homelessness."

The declaration was more than a year in the making, starting with meetings in Manhattan, and comes amid other efforts by conservative religious leaders around the world to coalesce. The most obvious sign of that came this fall, with an overture by Pope Benedict XVI to orthodox Anglicans who have left the Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality.

Some political activists said the declaration was evidence of evangelical leaders trying to lure back Catholics who voted Democratic in 2006 and last year.

"Privately they're saying, 'Look what happened when we let Democrats, even pro-life Democrats get into power,' " said R. Randolph "Randy" Brinson, a conservative activist who founded Redeem the Vote, a national effort to get young evangelicals to vote. "They're trying to re-poach that territory."

Although the declaration's positions are hardly new for religious conservatives, it says social ills have been exacerbated by the election of President Obama, an abortion rights advocate, as well as a general erosion of what it calls "marriage culture" with the rise of divorce, greater acceptance of infidelity and the uncoupling of marriage from childbearing.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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