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Baptist group fights Texas coal plants
Yahoo News/AP
By MATT CURRY, Associated Press Writer
February 10, 2007

DALLAS - Texas' largest Baptist group is taking a rare step into environmental advocacy, working to block Gov. Rick Perry's plan to speed the approval process for 18 new coal-fired power plants.

The Christian Life Commission, the public policy arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is mobilizing Baptists against the coal-fired plants and urging the convention's 2.3 million members to voice their opposition to state lawmakers.

"A lot of people felt like our industries, our policy leaders, are going to take care of these big issues like air quality, (and) it's not going to be something our local people are going to have to get up every day and worry about," said Suzii Paynter, director of the commission. "It can't be left to big interests to make these decisions in our behalf."

The Baptists stress that they are not jumping into full-blown activism, but even a small move toward environmentalism is significant.

"This is cutting edge stuff for Baptists — even moderate Baptists," said Bruce T. Gourley, associate director of The Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

The commission's action follows a resolution approved by the convention in November affirming "that we advocate for sound environmental policies in the public square."

Their stance is not necessarily that of all, or even most, Baptists. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is a moderate congregation in a state where Baptists are mainly divided between traditionalists, who are closely tied to the national denomination and the moderates, who are far more independent.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the nation with more than 16 million members, adopted a resolution last summer denouncing environmental activism and warning that it was "threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community."

Paynter said Texas Baptists' involvement stems from concern over how dirty air is affecting the health of church members.

TXU Corp.'s coal proposal is on a fast track under an executive order Perry issued last year to expand the production of electricity and lower its cost. The company says the plants will meet growing demand for power, boost the economy of small towns and reduce toxic emissions by replacing older plants.

Environmental organizations, a coalition of Texas cities and counties and a group of influential Dallas business executives are among the critics who contend the company is driven by profits and is rushing to beat more stringent federal restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.

Many opponents of the coal plants will attend rallies at the state Capitol on Sunday and Monday. But Paynter said the Texas Baptists, while not opposing the demonstrations, will not be involved.

"I know environmentalists, they want to see a bunch of Christians marching on the Capitol," she said. "I don't really want to be seen as out there beating the drums to try to get people to the Capitol. We have a longer-term goal, which is about the stewardship of creation."

Gourley, of the Baptist center in Georgia, said Texas denominational leaders must be careful not to alienate Baptists in the pews. He said it is difficult to determine whether environmentalism will gain momentum among Baptists.

"I don't think it's an anomaly, but I really wonder if it's going to gain much traction any time soon," he said. "It would take a reorientation of how we Baptists understand our place in this world, and enlarging our whole definition of what salvation is."

Mary Darden, a Baptist deacon and president of Keep Waco Green, said the coal issue is rarely discussed at her church because members include power company employees. Sometimes people in her congregation, which is affiliated with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, quietly offer support, but she said she wishes they would "come out of the closet and help."

"I do not believe God wants us to continue to pollute and cause the world to degenerate the way it is," Darden said.

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