Religious leaders expressed disappointment after President Bush on Tuesday carried out his threat to veto legislation to provide health insurance for 10 million American children.

Bush used the fourth veto of his presidency to reject a bipartisan measure expanding the 10-year-old State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) from its current enrollment of about 6.6 million children to more than 10 million.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said Baptists must work to override Bush’s veto.

“Goodwill Baptists must challenge the House members who voted against this bill to vote to override the president’s regrettable veto that runs counter to the biblical imperative to protect the poor, to care for the ill and to seek the welfare for those at the margins of live,” Parham said.

An American Baptist pastor who supports expanding the insurance program called Bush’s veto of the measure a “wrong choice morally.”

“We are too wealthy a nation not to take care of our children,” Michael-Ray Mathews, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, Calif., told in a telephone interview Thursday.

Mathews, whose church is part of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., is a member of the board of directors of the Alliance of Baptists. He said he and his church support expansion of SCHIP through PICO, a network of faith-based federations across the country that recently released a letter from 2,000 faith leaders to President Bush and Congress urging passage of strong bipartisan children’s health legislation.

Representing PICO at a Tuesday press conference in Washington, Heyward Wiggins III, pastor of Camden Tabernacle Bible Church in Camden, N.J., said the president “made the wrong moral choice by putting politics ahead of children’s health.”

Wiggins and other faith leaders challenged Democrats and Republicans who voted against the bipartisan compromise and those who failed to vote at all “to side with children and vote to override the president’s veto.”

“Make no mistake,” Wiggins said. “Covering uninsured children is a clear moral choice facing every member of Congress. If enough House members vote to override the president’s veto, 4 million children who are now uninsured will have the hope of health coverage. If House members fail to stand up to President Bush’s veto, those children will be left in limbo, without the ability to see a doctor and get the kind of preventive care that all children need.”

Glenn Palmberg, the national head of the Evangelical Covenant Church, termed the veto “indefensible.”

“How can anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus support something that deprives poor children of health care?” he asked.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and author of God’s Politics, said SCHIP “should be a clear issue for a president who once championed ‘compassionate conservatism.'” Wallis challenged Congress to “demonstrate the moral leadership the White House has failed to offer and over-ride the president’s veto.”

The vetoed bill would provide $60 billion over the next five years, funded in large part by hiking the federal cigarette tax. That is $35 billion more than current spending and $30 billion more than the president proposed.

The White House brushed aside charges the president doesn’t care about kids, arguing the bill would be a move toward socialized medicine. The program covers children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford to buy private health insurance. The president said expanding the program would open it to middle-class families, a departure from its original intent of helping the working poor.

In March, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission spoke on behalf of an interfaith coalition saying providing quality healthcare to uninsured children should be a top priority for government officials.

According to Baptist Press, Land called 9 million children without health coverage “a major problem that is unacceptable in a nation of our wealth and our ability to address the problem.” He advocated a “basic threshold of equal opportunity” to gain healthcare “below which no child in America should be allowed to fall, and, unfortunately, 9 million or more are below that threshold now.”After initially supporting SCHIP, the SBC’s moral-concerns agency later said it opposed the expanded reauthorization, calling it a move toward socialized medicine.

“Congress should have left this program alone instead of turning it into a vehicle to expand government-run health care,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “The determination of many in Congress to expand SCHIP coverage to cover millions of children who are already covered by their parents’ private health insurance plans is disappointing to say the least.”

Another BP story said Land lived under a nationalized health care system in England from 1972 to 1975 and opposed socialized medicine for Americans.

“I am convinced that thousands of people die every year in Britain who would not die if they were being treated under the American health system,” Land said. “The bottom line is that a government-run health system would mean significantly worse health care for 80 percent of our population, with only marginally better care for the bottom 20 percent.”

But Mathews, who attended the same March press conference as Land, told he didn’t think anything had changed for the diverse interfaith coalition, which wasn’t endorsing a particular approach to fixing the problem.

“What we were all saying that day still holds,” he said. “In a wealthy nation, there is no reason our children should not have health care.”

Mathews said the particular plan approved by Congress isn’t socialized medicine but is privately run.

“We just need more of our children to have access to that resource,” he said.

The president’s veto drew criticism on Capitol Hill not only from Democrats but also members of his own party.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would try to persuade some members of the House of Representatives who voted against the insurance bill to switch their positions to override the veto. (There is already enough support for an override in the Senate.) Grassley is a Baptist layman scheduled to speak at next year’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta.

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a former Southern Baptist university president who supported the president’s veto, told the Associated Press he is “absolutely confident” there is strong enough support to sustain a veto in the House.

“Baptists in the South hold one of the keys to overriding President Bush’s veto,” Parham said. “There are 20 or so Baptists congressmen in the South who voted against this bill. They must be persuaded by people of faith to do the right thing, to vote for rather than against children.”

Parham said overriding the president’s veto “makes doubly good sense.”

“First, it provides more low-income children will health care,” he said. “Second, it reduces smoking, one of the leading causes of ill-health, through the increased taxation on cigarettes that pays for this child health care program.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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