"As a person of faith, I stand in support of God’s creation and the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions to protect it." If this statement sounds surprising, it shouldn’t. It was issued in February from United Methodist Women as they urged Congress not to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and to support legal protections against pollution. Many religious groups across the country share their concern and are connecting their faith to action in support of the EPA.
Many faith communities have found a calling over the past few decades to become better stewards of God’s creation in both their houses of worship and broader communities. This commitment to stewardship crosses theological lines to include Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups as well as other faith traditions. Together, faith groups are working to make their churches, synagogues, and mosques more energy efficient, build community gardens, and teach their children about the importance of being good stewards of God’s creation.
But faith groups are doing more than conservation and education. They are also strong policy advocates, urging elected leaders to reduce pollution, protect public health, and promote environmental justice. Faith group activists worked hard to defeat Proposition 23 in California last year, which would have effectively repealed the nation’s most comprehensive clean energy and climate protection laws. Clean air and clean water are part of God’s creation and essential to human health. Though "regulation" might be a dirty word in some circles, it is crucial for keeping our global home clean.
Unfortunately, faith community voices seem to be falling on the deaf ears of many conservative members of Congress who have voted to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. These representatives should know that many of their religious constituents back home support legal protection of natural resources, and an empowered, vigilant EPA.
And with good reason. Over its 40-year history, the EPA has made significant advances in environmental protection and safeguarding public health, including removing lead from gasoline and the air, drastically reducing acid rain, and creating systems for dealing with industrial waste and toxins. In addition, an EPA study found that between 1970 and 1990, the Clean Air Act created $21.4 trillion in health and environmental benefits, including drastically reduced cases of heart disease, asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, and stroke. The creation of the EPA has led to significant financial benefits for consumers, too. In 2008 alone, the EPA helped consumers save more than $55 million in water and sewer bills through WaterSense-labeled products, a label that denotes a product is water efficient.
Faith groups protecting their communities by supporting the EPA
Last December 56 faith organizations nationwide called on Congress to protect the EPA’s authority to regulate pollutants, including greenhouse gases and smog. They wrote, "We believe that the United States must take all appropriate and available actions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change; we therefore urge you to oppose any efforts to undermine the authority of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. We urge you to protect the Clean Air Act and allow the EPA to use the full strength of the law to ensure that God’s Creation and God’s children remain healthy."
The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which represents 29 national Jewish organizations, considers itself the environmental voice of the American Jewish community. They too support more aggressive regulation and incentive structures to encourage investments in renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency, and public transit. COEJL also advocates for "aggressive climate change legislation."
In fact, people of faith even support expanding the EPA’s capacity and jurisdiction in order to better protect public health, especially vulnerable populations. Many faith leaders have seen the ravaging effects of air and water pollution in their communities. Statistics show that there are 80,000 unregulated chemicals produced commercially in the United States on which regulators have virtually no information. Some of these chemicals have been linked to asthma and childhood cancers, as well as other serious and debilitating diseases.
At the state and local level, congregations and faith groups are actively involved in regulation advocacy campaigns because they are seeing the dire consequences of unregulated industry in their cities and towns. For example, North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light organized a grassroots letter writing campaign and speakers at a public hearing regarding the dangers of coal ash in North Carolina, where ponds with higher than accepted levels of arsenic and zinc (found in coal ash) are connected to cancer and other diseases.
In Appalachia, a coalition of 28 Christian groups is fighting against mountain-top removal by coal companies. More than 470 mountains have been destroyed and over 2,000 miles of streams have been filled in and polluted with waste products. As a result, the National Council of Churches notes that drinking water is polluted, flooding has increased, homes and the landscape have been damaged, and people’s health has suffered.
In the wake of the Gulf Coast oil disaster, people of faith in the New Orleans area and across the country are working together for stricter regulation of deep-water oil drilling and swifter clean-up. And they are challenging their communities to higher standards of green living.
The EPA’s commitment to working with faith communities
The EPA itself has shown a demonstrated commitment to working with faith communities, both in words and deeds. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is a Christian herself and has spoken of the "moral reasons" to be "good stewards of our environment." She has helped people realize that faith communities and the EPA have more common ground than one might think, since both are called to protect the most vulnerable. In November Jackson addressed the National Council of Churches, saying, "The effort to help communities that are overburdened by environmental and economic challenges is surely consistent with calls…to help the least of these…" (Matthew 25:45).
In her speech, Jackson also said, "We must strengthen our collaboration on critical environmental issues: cleaning up our air, land, and water…and safeguarding the creation that has been given to us to steward." More tangibly, the EPA has built relationships with houses of worship through its Energy Star program, which helps churches, mosques, and synagogues cut energy usage. For Earth Day in 2008, the EPA collaborated with Interfaith Earth Healing Initiative and Native Americans to complete over 100 earth care projects across eight states in the Great Lakes region.
Conservatives in Congress and their crusade to undermine the EPA
Despite such a broad-based faith commitment to the EPA, conservatives in Congress are making a concerted effort to weaken or destroy the agency. If they aren’t calling to abolish it completely, they are voting to cripple it by removing funding. Last month the House of Representatives voted on a continuing resolution that would cut the EPA’s budget by nearly a third. The resolution would also thwart the enactment of carbon emission regulation, mercury emission, and offshore drilling regulation. In addition, conservatives have voted to stifle efforts by the EPA to protect water (under the Clean Water Act) in Appalachian coal mining projects and to regulate coal ash, both areas where faith groups have called for greater regulation.
Of course, people of faith, like all Americans, understand that we need to be wise and careful in our spending priorities in order to reduce the deficit and national debt. But shouldn’t one of our highest and most sacred priorities be the health of our communities and the people who live in them? Faith communities’ answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Marta Cook is a Fellows Assistant and Annelisa Steeber is an Intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.
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