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New Mexico Catholic heads defend advocate over racism claim

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ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — New Mexico's three Catholic bishops said the head of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops didn't accuse anyone of racism and are defending his actions in trying to push for an expansion of early childhood education programs.

In an open letter Tuesday, the bishops wrote that Allen Sanchez, executive director of the group, has a deep love "for the Gospel" and is an advocate for the state's poor with an extension record.

"We Catholic bishops of New Mexico respectfully request our elected officials keep their focus on the issue at hand: the plight of our children living in extreme poverty," Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantu and Gallup Bishop James Wall wrote.

The letter comes after 33 GOP New Mexico state lawmakers sent Wester on letter Monday asking if he agreed with remarks about racism made by Sanchez.

Sanchez told The Associated Press he believed racism contributed to the defeat of a proposal to expand funding for early childhood education.

"We feel there's an element of racism here," Sanchez said at a candlelight vigil outside the New Mexico Statehouse during the last night of the Legislative session. "If you look at the footage of the hearings around this proposal, the opposition came from people with power and wealth. They don't understand what is going on in our communities with poverty."

In a story published Feb. 15 by the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sanchez told the Associated Press he thought weathly whites opposed the plan that would have helped the state's poor Hispanic and Native American children by offering expanded preschool options.

A constitutional amendment to increase annual distributions from the $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education programs passed the New Mexico House but died in a Senate committee. The plan was supported by liberal lawmakers and opposed by conservatives and some moderate Hispanic Senate Democrats.

GOP lawmakers who opposed the measure said Sanchez's comments were "unfair and deliberately inflammatory" and wanted Wester to weigh in.

"The political debate is divisive enough in this country and this state without unwarranted accusations of racism being thrown about without any evidence," the lawmakers said.

The bishops, however, did not back down in their push for the early childhood education proposal that they have said would help Hispanic and Native American children get out of poverty.

"Institutional or structural racism is constructed by policies and practices that, intentionally or not, produce the outcomes that place a racial group on an unlevel playing field," this bishops wrote.