When Gov. Cecil Underwood blamed a Statehouse bomb threat on the Methodist church, no one was more surprised than State Police Trooper G.R. Cunningham. Cunningham is one of two troopers heading the investigation of the threat, which Underwood has said was made by someone upset about mountaintop removal surface mining. Underwood said Thursday that he believed the Methodists share the blame because a church resolution against mountaintop removal "inflamed public opinion" on the issue. The governor also targeted the Methodists because he said the bomb threat letter received by his office mirrored the language of the church resolution. State Police apparently first found out about the governor's theory at the same time as the rest of the state: when they read the newspaper. "I was just made aware of it this morning," Cunningham said Friday. "I got a call from my office asking me if I read the newspaper." Cunningham said State Police have not reviewed the Methodist resolution, and declined to say if investigators planned to do so. "All I can really say is we're still working on it," Cunningham said. "I'm conducting an investigation and I'm looking at every angle. We will cover every base." The Methodist resolution, passed at the 120,000-member church's statewide convention in June, stated that, "The sanctity and sacredness of human life and the natural environment should not be destroyed in the name of corporate profits." The resolution called on the state to halt all mountaintop removal mining "until scientific study of its long term effect on human life and the natural environment has been accomplished." A portion of the bomb threat letter released in June by the State Police contains no language similar to that of the Methodist resolution. Public Safety Secretary Otis Cox, through the Underwood press office, declined Thursday to release the rest of the bomb threat letter. In his weekly opinion column issued late Friday afternoon, Underwood tried to back off his criticism of the church. "Let me be clear: The person responsible for the bomb threat at the Capitol is the individual who wrote the letter threatening to blow up the Capitol and forcing the evacuation of 3,700 state employees," Underwood said. "I have never suggested otherwise," the governor said. "But I do believe that church leaders must be wary of making public statements that could incite an unstable person to threaten violence. Unfortunately, fanatical people tend to be inspired to take irresponsible actions when respected institutions endorse their own particular views." The governor continued, "In no way am I affixing blame for the bomb scare on tens of thousands of United Methodists of steadfast faith and good will throughout West Virginia. "Instead, my frustration arises from the activists in the church hierarchy who pushed for official approval of a resolution that was oversimplified, unnecessary and divisive," he said. Underwood also encouraged church involvement in some social issues, but only in limited ways. "With thousands of West Virginians struggling in poverty because of traps of illiteracy and poor health habits, I believe churches should become increasingly active in addressing the needs of our citizens," the governor said. Underwood encouraged churches to get involved in the Mission West Virginia program, which adopts families that are moving off welfare rolls to the job market. "Such a commitment through Mission West Virginia - a privately supported initiative that I established a year ago - would help our families gain independence and fulfillment." But also on Friday, Methodist church spokesman Tom Burger pointed out that this year's church conference passed two other resolutions critical of Underwood policies. Both concerned the state's program to move people off welfare. One resolution urged the state to count education and training as "work-related activities" for the purposes of the West Virginia Works program. This would allow people to continue receiving welfare benefits while they go to school or are otherwise trained to get better jobs. The second urged the state Department of Health and Human Resources to stop counting Supplemental Security Income benefits as income for purposes of the welfare benefit cutoff threshold. This would mean families with disabled members - including many children - could continue receiving SSI and not be penalized by being cut off welfare benefits at the same time. That resolution states that "God has called the Church to 'preach good news to the poor ... proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.'" Burger noted that neither of those resolutions has received any criticism from the governor. Ann Garcelon, press spokeswoman for DHHR Secretary Joan Ohl, said the agency had no problem with the Methodist church voicing its opinion on welfare issues. "Not that I've heard, anyway," Garcelon said. "I haven't heard Joan say that the church or anybody else should stay out of this. "We take anyone's suggestions or recommendations and review them."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.