The mere mention of the name “Cuba” has evoked responses that range from inept to inexcusable from American Presidents and their administrations for decades. Cuba has been integral to presidential politics (a candidate must appeal to appeal to the Cuban community to win Florida), humanitarian conundrums (what do we do with people who are willing to get out on the ocean on a rickety raft to escape their homeland?) and athletic intrigue (can we win the pennant if we can get a Cuban superstar to defect?).

Recently the madness that is the relationship, or lack thereof, between our government and Cuba, has found its way into the life of the Alliance of Baptists, a relatively small group of liberal Baptist congregations with headquarters in Washington D.C. of which I am the President of the Board of Directors and of which Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church is a member. Until late 2005 the Alliance had a license, issued by the United States Department of the Treasury, for travel for religious purposes to Cuba. Under that license, since suspended, many of our congregations would send delegations to Cuba to meet with churches and church members from the Fraternity of Cuban Baptist Churches. Many of these congregations formed “sister church” relationships with Cuban churches and would regularly (in most cases this meant annually) visit their sister congregations.

In July of 2006 the Alliance office in Washington received notice that the Department of Treasury intended to fine us $34,000 because five of our congregations had violated the terms of our license to travel by engaging in “tourist” activities rather than religious activities. Apparently going to a beach with the hosting Cuban congregation is simply unacceptable to the “strict constructionists” in the current administration. They can’t imagine that enjoying God’s creation with friends, laughing, playing or sharing a meal on the shore are religious activities. According to the current administration, if it’s not prayer, it’s not religion; if it’s not preaching, it’s not religion. One is left to wonder if power in Washington has bothered to read the section in the First Amendment that states “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I guess this might be expected from the bunch that tells us that “faith based initiatives” do not violate the establishment-of-religion clause.

The Alliance Board of Directors is in agreement with our Executive Director that we should engage a skilled lawyer and fight the U.S. Department of Treasury on this. Baptists were among the first religious groups in the country to insist on the freedom of religion. The part of the First Amendment dealing with the freedom of religion was, in part, the result of work by Baptists in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New York, Georgia and Virginia. We see the actions of the Department of Treasury as a clear violation of our religious freedoms. To acquiesce to the dictates of the government in exchange for a lesser fine or no fine would be to turn our back on both our historic and contemporary commitments to religious freedom. It would be to deny that our partnerships with the Cuban churches have spiritual and religious merit. It would be to admit that our government is right in asserting that the only relationships with people in foreign countries that are worthy of being called religious are efforts to convert and control. It would be to sanction the notion that most relationships with the people and churches of Cuba are little more than misguided efforts which end up lining the coffers of Castro’s regime.

The process of dealing with the unjust assertions of the U.S Department of Treasury is just beginning. Our board meets in D.C. in September. I will know more after these meetings. The five churches, all Southern, will have to make affidavits. Maybe our determined resistance will cause the bully to move on. Your interest, good thoughts and prayers are appreciated.