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Churches and Underwood clash over mine method

by Jennifer Bundy


CHARLESTON -- West Virginia church leaders say they have a responsibility to take stands on environmental issues because the Bible teaches the importance of stewardship over God's creation, and that includes the land.

But Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Sunday school teacher who has asked churches to help the state tackle a list of social issues, says, "If we are destroying thousands of jobs in the state, we haven't been very good stewards."

Underwood says churches should not pass resolutions questioning the coal mining practice called mountaintop removal, which he supports.

"I think they have more important concerns. A church is supposed to be a healing and conciliatory group. To take extreme positions doesn't do that," Underwood said.

Underwood has criticized his own United Methodist Church's West Virginia Conference for its June resolution and said the resolution's wording was very similar to the wording in a July bomb threat that forced the evacuation of the Capitol for a few hours.

But the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod was the first to make a statement.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Presbytery of the Shenandoah also has passed a resolution, as did the Episcopal Church of West Virginia last week.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Disciples of Christ are studying the issue, said Nathan Wilson, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

The state's two largest Jewish congregations, B'nai Jacob Synagogue and Congregation B'nai Israel in Charleston, have not issued resolutions on the issue.

The four churches that passed resolutions modeled them on a Commission on Religion in Appalachia statement and the language in each is almost identical.

All four end by calling for "governors, legislatures and other appropriate agencies in the Appalachian coal-producing states to require that mountaintop removal-valley fill mining be stopped and it not be resumed until scientific study of its long-term effects on human life and the natural environment has been accomplished."

Wilson said, "I think Gov. Underwood, like many people, has this unfortunate understanding of the church. They want the church to be involved in very personal, individual issues, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. ... They don't want the church to be very involved in a communal, societal standpoint."

But scripture calls both for individuals to be concerned about their own souls and for government to be more accountable, Wilson said.

Lutheran Bishop Ralph Dunkin said Christianity is "a 24-hour-a-day commitment to life. ... The church has every right to speak out on every issue. The church is always called upon to speak for those who can't speak for themselves."

People who think churches should help individuals but not take stands for social justice also criticized churches that supported the civil rights movement, Wilson said.

Underwood spokesman Dan Page, however, said that it was clear during the civil rights era that gross injustices were being committed that were unlawful and wrong.

"It clearly is appropriate (for churches) to take a stand on a moral issue that affects human beings directly," Page said.

Mountaintop removal coal mining, however, is a scientific, economic and engineering issue. It would become a moral issue if, as the resolutions request, it was halted immediately, because that would put thousands of miners out of work, according to Page's argument.

"Poverty is not moral," Page said.

But the resolutions and church leaders point out that mountaintop removal is economical in part because it employs fewer miners than other mining methods.

Underwood has called the Methodist resolution "oversimplified, unnecessary and divisive."

He singled out that church because he is an active member and criticized its action in a private meeting with a church leader that was later publicized, Page said.

"The issue, as it has been discussed publicly in many cases, has been one based on emotion and not engineering, and not economics and not the employment it provides many people who are legally engaged in that practice," Page said.

Page said it is not fair for Underwood to be criticized for supporting mountaintop removal because it has been done since the 1970s and is not much different to the way mountains are moved into valleys to make way for roads, shopping centers and airports.

Church leaders said their statements were issued this year because the Legislature passed a law allowing coal companies to move twice as much land without paying a mitigation fee. Underwood, who did not propose the bill, signed it over the objections of state and federal environmental regulators.

Some church leaders find it ironic that Underwood wants their help with other issues but has criticized their input on mountaintop removal.

"I think there's a strong conflict there," said the Rt. Rev. John H. Smith, bishop of the Episcopal Church of West Virginia.

The day before his 1997 inaugural, Underwood had a prayer service at which he called for churches to join the state in a "Mission West Virginia" to attack illiteracy, bad habits that lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, smoking and drug abuse.

Those problems and mountaintop removal are all social issues, Smith said.

Dunkin said the debate is over the proper way to care for the land and the people who live on the land.

There is no real guarantee that coal companies will restore mountains once they remove coal, and companies have shown no real concern for the people whose lives they disrupt, said Dunkin, of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Instead of issuing resolutions, the governor has said churches should work with his administration to find a balance between environmental and economic concerns.

Smith said that is exactly what the resolution attempts to do.

"It takes a moderate stand and says, 'Wait a minute. Let's look at the long-time effects before we rush head-long."'

Like Wilson, Underwood cites scripture to back up his position.

"The Bible says we are to take dominion over the Earth," Underwood said.

But Smith said the Hebrew word for "dominion" in that passage does not imply control over the Earth, but instead "has more to do with being responsible for the well-being of creation, for the harmony of the whole of creation and accountability of that to God."