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House passes exemption for Ohio religious group


Although Maryland regulators have barred solicitations in the state by an Ohio religious organization, the House of Delegates has approved legislation that would permit the group to resume activities.

The Christian Brotherhood Newsletter of Barberton, Ohio, has acted like an illegal insurance company, according to Maryland insurance regulators, enrolling members who agree to pay money each month to other members who need help with medical bills.

But the brotherhood and its legislative supporters in Annapolis say the regulators have it all wrong: The organization is only helping people help themselves.

"This is a group whose sole purpose is to take care of their own, people of like faith, and not depend on the government to meet their needs," Jane Wampler, an aide to Del. D. Bruce Poole, said yesterday. "They take the Bible literally, that they're to share the burdens of one another."

The 25,000 members in the United States and 64 other nations receive monthly notices directing them to send a contribution to a specific member in need. One month of the year members send their money to the brotherhood to pay for administrative expenses.

Ms. Wampler said members pay about $65 a month. Couples and families reportedly pay more. According to published reports in 1993, members' payments totaled $2.2 million a month.

Mr. Poole, a Washington County Democrat, is the chief sponsor of the bill, which passed Tuesday by a vote of 133 to 3 and is awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee. Some of the brotherhood's 200 Maryland members live in his rural district, Ms. Wampler said. Others live on the Eastern Shore.

The Maryland Insurance Administration, which obtained a cease-and-desist order against the brotherhood in August, did not take a position on the legislation exempting the group from state insurance regulation. Some amendments were added to ensure that the public is not deceived into thinking that it is an insurance plan providing benefits guaranteed by the state.

Any literature distributed by the brotherhood must state that it "does not guarantee or promise that your medical bills will be" paid by others. But Ms. Wampler said the group's publications already include such caveats and that no member has ever claimed to have been deceived.

Officials of the brotherhood could not be reached for comment.

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