Backed up by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, pagans across the U.S. are demanding a Bush administration official apologize for saying pagan groups don’t care about the poor.

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, participated in an online interactive “Ask the White House” chat Nov. 26. One question posed to him had to do with whether or not pagan faith-based groups should be considered for public funding.

“I haven’t run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor!” Towey responded, according to a White House transcript. “Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can’t be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work, and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, has asked Towey to apologize to the nation’s Wiccans and other pagans.

“Your reply is problematic for several reasons,” he wrote in a letter to Towey, according to a statement from the group.

“Most troublingly, it implies that the Bush administration intends to discriminate against certain faith-[based] groups from the outset. This is a curious stand for you to take, as you have repeatedly insisted that the administration will not play favorites among religious groups under the faith-based initiative.”

Lynn claims Towey has misled the American people by claiming the faith-based initiative will be open to all religious groups but then asserting that certain groups will be denied funding.

“Government can’t play favorites when it comes to religion,” Lynn said. “If religiously affiliated social services are funded, it must be done on an even-handed basis. Mr. Towey’s recent comments indicate that the administration does not seem to understand this basic principle.

“This incident demonstrates once again that the ‘faith-based’ initiative is a bad idea,” Lynn concluded. “When government tries to fund religious ministries, constitutional problems are inevitable.”

According to Religion News Service, White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said in response, “The president has made it clear that the issue isn’t whether an organization believes in God or not but whether the program works – are addicts recovering, the homeless finding housing, etc. The focus isn’t on religion but on results.”

The Washington Post reports since Towey’s comment, outraged pagans have bombarded the White House and Internet chat rooms with scores of examples of their charitable activity. Particularly common, they say, are food drives in conjunction with Pagan Pride Day celebrations across the country.

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