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Concern for the environment a growing priority in many congregations

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Between bites of kugel and sips of matzoh ball soup, the conversation at Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen's Shabbat dinner each week inevitably goes in one direction.

Light bulbs.

Tilsen points out his home's energy-saving, fluorescent lighting to each guest as he tackles a subject more and more religious leaders are broaching: environmentalism.

Religious groups around the country are finding ecological issues hard to ignore. Clergy are speaking from the pulpit on global warming and Arctic drilling, and practicing what they preach in their own churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

At Tilsen's Congregation Beth El-Kesser in New Haven, incandescent lighting has been replaced and new, more efficient heating and air-conditioning systems have been installed. The sanctuary's ceiling will be lowered and its walls moved in to reduce the area that must be heated and cooled.

Even the ner tamid, the tiny red light that indicates the location of the Ark of the Covenant, which holds the Torah, will be replaced to make use of natural light.

''We're still not the most energy-efficient synagogue or religious institution, but we have put a lot of effort and money into it,'' Tilsen said. ''We're just playing catch-up.''

Across faiths, the environmental movement has been evolving slowly over the last decade or more. Denominations have started looking into their traditions, examining how their beliefs could be applied to ecological issues and releasing statements outlining their positions.

Many Christian and Jewish groups have set up offices or assigned directors to deal exclusively with being green. Muslim, Buddhist and some other faiths have also taken up the issue.

Paul Gorman, head of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, said 21 states now have interfaith global warming and energy campaigns. But Gorman estimates that for every house of worship where the environment is an active issue, there are 100 where it is not.

''We're only just beginning to learn to practice what we preach,'' Gorman said.

In Los Angeles, the newly opened Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is partially powered by solar panels mounted atop the Roman Catholic church's conference center.

In Palatine, Ill., the Sikh Religious Temple has added water-saving taps and cut its energy use by $720 a month.

And in Wynnewood, Pa., the Evangelical Environmental Network is gearing up for ''What Would Jesus Drive?'' a national campaign urging people to think about their transportation choices.

''We basically just want to get the question out there,'' said the Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the network. ''Is transportation a moral decision? We definitely think it is.''

The Rev. Tom Carr, pastor of First Baptist Church in West Hartford and a member of Connecticut's Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, has cut energy use -- and costs -- at his church. He has spoken out on environmental issues, which has included lending his support to campaigns against the ''Sooty Six,'' the name environmentalists give the state's oldest and most-polluting power plants.

Hartford Seminary has made changes on its campus, from ending use of chemical weed killers and pesticides on its lawns to supplying mugs for coffee instead of paper and plastic foam cups. In July, the seminary switched to Green Mountain Energy Co., which provides energy from sources including wind, water and natural gas.

Green Mountain supplies power to hundreds of houses of worship in eight states. With its power typically costing up to 1 1/2 cents more per kilowatt-hour, it's not an easy choice for some congregations.

''They're literally putting their money where their beliefs are,'' said John Holtz, a spokesman for the company.

Some religious groups have resisted the movement. Gorman said some denominations are suspicious of the paganism sometimes associated with ecology, or believe the movement is based more on liberal politics than theology.

But there is no question that religious groups have started to lobby on environmental issues and that politicians are aware of their efforts.

In February, 1,200 religious leaders sent a letter to senators urging energy conservation as a ''morally superior'' alternative to drilling for oil in Alaska. Last year, 12 Catholic bishops were active in protecting the Northwest's Columbia River watershed. And in 1998, mainline Protestant churches lobbied for the passage of the Kyoto Protocol.

In a letter to President Bush after meeting with European environmental ministers in March 2001, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman wrote: ''For the first time, the world's religious communities have started to engage in the issue. Their solutions vary widely, but the fervor of the focus was clear.''

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On the Net:

National Religious Partnership for the Environment: http://www.nrpe.org



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