CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Alliance of Baptists applauded President Obama for loosening restrictions on American's travel to Cuba and called for more reform during the progressive group's April 17-19 convocation in Charlotte, N.C.
After experiencing hindered access to Cuba under the previous administration, the Alliance welcomed the president's April 13 order relaxing restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans with family members in Cuba to travel to the communist nation and send money to relatives. The group said Obama's move was "an important first step toward creating a rational and effective policy toward Cuba."
The Alliance called on Obama to ease travel restrictions further and to continue a thorough review of United State policy toward Cuba, including a nearly half-century old trade embargo "and its destructive impact on both countries."
The Cuba statement called on Alliance members to lobby their representatives and senators to pass legislation allowing all Americans to visit Cuba.
A Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act now before Congress would prohibit any president from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents except in time of war, armed hostilities or imminent danger to health or safety of U.S. citizens.
A bipartisan bill, H.R. 874 has 124 co-sponsors in the House and awaits a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The companion Senate bill is S. 428.
Mark Siler, a member of the Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, N.C., said President Obama's recent comments on Cuba policy represent a "tipping point" in U.S.-Cuba relations.
While the Alliance has adopted several statements on Cuba in the past, Siler said: "This one is truly a call to action. It's time to put feet on our hopes and prayers."
He said it would take "a significant groundswell of folks like us" getting in touch with their elected officials to make the change.
Since 1991 the Alliance has had a formal relationship with the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba, a like-minded association of progressive Baptist congregations on the Caribbean island.
A number of Alliance churches have partnerships with congregations in Cuba, and some members of those churches have traveled there in mission teams. "The Alliance is an amazing network of people who have connections in Cuba and can share that with their representatives," said Ana Karim, a member of the Alliance's board of directors.
In 2006 the Treasury Department cracked down on humanitarian visits with groups the Bush administration considered too close to the Castro regime, declining to renew travel licenses to religious bodies including the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the National Council of Churches.
The government fined the Alliance of Baptists $34,000 in 2006, alleging five church mission teams traveling to Cuba under the Alliance's travel license violated the trade embargo by engaging in tourist activities.
Later officials dropped the fine, saying none of the five churches did anything wrong, but warned of "criminal and/or civil penalties" for any future violation of the Cuba embargo.
The Alliance's new Cuba resolution also asked President Obama to instruct the Treasury Department "to ease restrictions on non-tourist, people-to-people exchanges, particularly for educational, humanitarian, cultural and religious purposes."
Other statements adopted during a business session supported raising the U.S. minimum wage to $10 per hour, endorsed workers' rights to unionize and called on Congress to reduce carbon emissions linked to climate change.
Alliance members debated a fourth statement inviting ministers to refuse to sign marriage licenses both as a matter of separation of church and state and as a way of protesting laws that ban gay marriage. The group decided to refer the matter to a task force for further study.
Formed in 1987, the Alliance of Baptists was the first group to split from the Southern Baptist Convention in response to a fundamentalist takeover of the nation's largest Protestant faith group. With 127 churches, the Alliance has its highest concentration of churches in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.