If Pruitt is a man of faith, he should start acting like one

Troubles mount for Trump's EPA chief
Troubles mount for Trump's EPA chief

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Rabbi Daniel Swartz is the spiritual leader of Temple Hesed of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, a national nonprofit. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Is Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, acting morally? You'd be forgiven if you thought I asked that question because of the swirl of headlines surrounding Pruitt's problematic travel and security costs, his rental of a condo from a lobbyist couple or accusations (which Pruitt denies) of surreptitiously giving bonuses to loyal Oklahoma aides.

Certainly, abuse of power or betraying public trust are serious issues. And yet, as a rabbi, I'm much more troubled by his policy decisions and how they affect the lives of children today and for generations to come. I find his greatest moral failings to be his efforts to reverse protections that benefit our health and the health of our planet.
Daniel Swartz
In other words, Pruitt's actions have betrayed the core mission of the EPA: protecting the health of people and the environment. When President Richard Nixon -- in perhaps the most moral action of his presidency -- established the EPA, he wrote that to make a "coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food ... and because arresting environmental deterioration is of great importance to the quality of life in our country and the world, I believe that in this case a strong, independent agency is needed."
Under Pruitt, the EPA is becoming both weaker and more beholden to the very companies whose products pollute our bodies and biomes.
    Take his attempts to roll back the Clean Power Plan and Corporate Average Fuel Economy mileage standards, both designed to help move the United States into a clean energy future, and away from our fossil fuel addiction and all the harm that causes. These actions put the world at greater risk from the effects of climate change -- ranging from deadly heat waves, which Europe experienced last summer, to deadlier wildfire seasons, which California struggled with last year.
    Then there is Pruitt's decision to overrule his own scientists and years of studies and reverse course on a planned ban of the harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos. The move came after a "brief introduction in passing" between Pruitt and Dow Chemical Co. CEO Andrew Liveris at an energy conference in Houston, according to The Associated Press. While an EPA spokeswoman said that chlorpyrifos was not mentioned during the conversation, what really matters is Pruitt's decision to allow the pesticide's further use -- for which the EPA chief could not cite a single peer-reviewed study. He has put farm workers at risk from acute effects such as vomiting and seizures and children at risk of developmental delays and neurological damage.
    And then there was his attempt to delay, for at least six more years, the revision of a 17-year-old standard on allowable amounts of lead dust, which the EPA admits is not set low enough to protect children. This would leave thousands of children at risk of permanent brain damage, learning disabilities and violent tendencies.
    And in what may be the most morally appalling action he has taken to date, he has called for the elimination of the minimum age protections that currently prohibit minors from applying pesticides, including the most deadly classes of pesticides, and the requirement that children (and their fellow workers) have a right to a representative who can access information about the chemicals to which they are exposed.
    Exemptions from the minimum age requirement already exist for family members of the owner-operators of agricultural establishments, and private or commercial pesticide applicator businesses. Yet Pruitt wants to expand the number of children who can be left unprotected. Why?
    Pruitt has clearly and publicly declared that his faith is of paramount importance to him. So I have to ask, how can a person of faith justify such a decision? I don't think there is a single faith tradition that says it's OK to hurt children or keep them and their families in the dark about threats to their safety and healthy development. Rather, religions all over the world teach that one of the most fundamental responsibilities of all adults is to care for and protect children.
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    For example, according to several Hadith (Sahih Bukhari 676-678), the Prophet Mohammed would cut short his prayer whenever he heard a child cry, so that he or she could be comforted as soon as possible. Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish taught in the name of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch that the whole world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren (BT Shabbat 119b). And within Pruitt's own tradition, he should pay attention to Matthew 18:5, which records Jesus teaching, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." Exposing someone to highly toxic pesticides is not anyone's definition of "welcoming."
    It would be ironic if Pruitt is dismissed because he accepted discounted rooming, when he should have been fired for discounting the lives of children, here and across the world. I certainly wouldn't miss him if he's sent packing. I just hope his successor will recognize which of his moral failings matter most and start putting protection smack in the middle of the EPA, where it belongs.