Homeland Securitys faith-based initiative?

Is spying on clergy who support working people’s struggles a “faith-based initiative”? Homeland Security put its unique stamp on the president’s program when it sent undercover agents to spy on a gathering of clergy and religious activists in San Francisco last week. The gathering was one event building up to a religious “pilgrimage” organized by clergy throughout California in support of the 70,000 grocery workers on strike and locked out in that state.

Two agents of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s newly organized Homeland Security Department were caught, out of their jurisdiction, spying on a rally of priests, ministers, rabbis and religious congregants and labor supporters. The agents, although in plain clothes, were spotted in the crowd by alert observers who recognized them as the same authorities who had visited a Contra Costa County labor union office the day before to ask questions about the pilgrimage. The agents initially refused to give their names and denied being law enforcement officers, according to California AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Art Pulaski. After persistent questioning, they finally admitted their role. “When did we clergy people, people of faith, become such a threat to national security?” Rev. Phil Lawson of Faith Works, one of the activities organizers, wanted to know.

The “Grocery Workers Justice Pilgrimage” began in Los Angeles Jan. 26 with a prayer service featuring two dozen Southern California clergy and 50 grocery store workers’ families who boarded buses headed for Northern California. There the pilgrimage culminated Jan. 28 in a final prayer service and procession toward the home of Safeway CEO Steve Burd in Contra Costa County. County sheriffs refused to allow any grocery workers to accompany the five-member delegation of clergy along the county road to the entrance to Burd’s gated community.

Burd, considered the driving force behind the grocery chains’ hard-line insistence on cutting workers health care is known as a conservative evangelical who is active in his church. “We will be making a special appeal to Mr. Burd to follow the conciliatory principles of his tradition and return to the bargaining table,” said Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, which organized the pilgrimage.

The Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, which represents Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish faith communities with millions of members in Southern California, issued a statement Jan. 27 urging Burd to return to the negotiating table and encouraging congregants to observe the union’s picket lines.

While Burd’s religious connection did not appear to be influencing his stance on the issue of social justice, he was revealed to have another connection that might be more compelling. Burd is one of President Bush’s appointees to the Department of Homeland Security’s Private Sector Senior Advisory Committee. Could that connection have anything to do with the appearance of Homeland Security agents at religious gatherings and union offices and limitations on peaceful protest? Department of Homeland Security spokespersons did not return repeated calls for comment. Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Jimmy Lee told the World that the county’s Homeland Security Department has no connection to its federal namesake and its agents went to the San Francisco rally “for information” on the upcoming protest activity, not to spy.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.