Using as their text the historic Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, five Maryland clergymen and the Clinton for President campaign held a news conference yesterday to condemn the use of religion as a tool of division in the 1992 campaign.
"It is offensive to us that anyone be judged by the Republican Party as somehow less worthy than others on the basis of religious convictions," said Rabbi Mark Loeb of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.
Marylanders are "sick and tired of elements in the Republican Party who insist they have an exclusive franchise on religion," said Jon Spalter, spokesman for Clinton/Gore '92.
President Bush himself engaged in this tactic when he said that the word "God" had been left out of the Democratic platform, Mr. Spalter said.
"That kind of rhetoric is divisive, and it takes the focus away from the real issues of the campaign, which are jobs, education and health care," the spokesman said.
The news conference was held at Westminster Hall on the University of Maryland law school campus.
Bo Denysyk, executive director of the Maryland campaign to re-elect Mr. Bush, said comments of former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan and the Rev. Pat Robertson did represent "some thinking within a portion of the Republican Party, but not the entire party."
Mr. Bush supports the separation of church and state, he noted.
"It's a free country; people are allowed to speak their mind. Buchanan and Robertson were encouraged to speak, and they did," Mr. Denysyk said.
Mr. Bush's comments about the absence of the word "God" in the Democratic platform were a reflection of his general feeling that there should be a place for God and prayer in the public schools, Mr. Denysyk said.
Marylanders have a particular stake in the heritage of religious toleration in the United States, the ministers said yesterday. Before they spoke, Clinton/Gore staff members distributed copies of the Toleration Act.
According to Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist, the act guaranteed the right of Marylanders to quietly observe their religious convictions and provided for major penalties, including even execution, for anyone attempting to impose their religious views on others. The act was in effect for 40 years until more repressive laws were passed limiting freedoms largely to Anglicans. Only gradually were full religious rights restored in the state.
Yesterday, the clergymen said they found "dangerous" concepts in the Republican speeches. They said Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Robertson had been guilty of making divisive and intolerant comments during and after the Republican National Convention in Houston.
The suggestion that "some Americans are less godly and that one political party is less godly is one I find truly lamentable," said the Rev. Jim Banks, pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.
Rabbi Loeb and Mr. Banks were joined by the Rev. Sidney Daniels, pastor of Emmanual Christian Community Church in Baltimore; Rabbi Donald R. Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom of Baltimore; and the Rev. Kent Winters-Hazelton, a Presbyterian minister from Montgomery County.
"I might not agree with my friends who are Republican," Mr. Winters-Hazelton said. "But I come from a tradition that truly seeks to be inclusive. Those of us who live in this great state, this great Free State, have to be particularly concerned about religious intolerance."
The clergymen said their comments were not endorsements of Mr. Clinton. But Mr. Daniels, past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance in Baltimore, said he found something tactical in the Republican emphasis on religion.
"The campaign is degenerating into a camouflage act," he said. "The Republican Party says it loves families, but most of the programs that would help people get off welfare, programs like Head Start, have been underfunded."
The Republicans once had a president who said ketchup was a vegetable, he said, referring to former President Ronald Reagan.
"That," Mr. Daniels said, "is godless."