Crucial case for future of 'charitable choice'

A Texas court will decide when the US can legally fund church-run social programs.

On one idea at least, the two major presidential candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, can agree. Govern-ment should allow faith-based groups to take on more social services, from child care to worker training.

Yet the notion of "charitable choice," as it is called, is at the heart of a lawsuit in Texas that may determine the future of such church-led programs, and whether taxpayers should fund them.

The lawsuit, filed this week by a major Jewish organization and a Texas-based civil rights group, argues that Texas officials violated the constitutional separation of church and state by awarding a welfare-to-work contract to a consortium of Christian churches. The program in question, called Jobs Partnership of Washington County, offered Bible classes and urged the poor to build a personal relationship with Jesus, according to the complaint.

"I don't think the objection is about religious indoctrination," says Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. "It's when they cross the boundary and use these services either to proselytize or do it in such a way that you have to hear their religious message in order to receive the services. That's not the way it ought to work."

In the four years since the federal welfare overhaul was passed, hundreds of such programs have sprouted up across the country, so this case is certain to be watched closely. It's a case that pits two of America's most cherished concepts against each other: the belief that religion should keep its nose out of government matters, and the notion that churches can do much good in transforming individual lives and tackling major social ills.

Certainly, churches have been engaged in social services for decades, managing soup kitchens and ministering in prisons, among other things. Many Americans embrace that relationship. In a February poll by Zogby International of Utica, N.Y., 56 percent of the respondents favored using "a partnership of federal and religious and private organizations" to solve social problems.

"What this says is that we're not going to say no to anybody," says Alan Crockett, spokesman for Zogby.

These attitudes notwithstanding, faith-based social services are facing more and more legal challenges. In April, for instance, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a suit against Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, because the federally funded group fired a family specialist who was a lesbian.

"Churches have every right to provide social services," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United director. "But they may not receive tax funding if they discriminate on religious grounds."

Critics of the Jobs Partnership in Texas say this faith-based program had a distinctly sectarian feel to it. According to a 1999 evaluation of the program by the state Department of Human Services, Partnership's course materials were explicitly and emphatically Christian. Typical is one course, entitled "Who's the boss? All authority comes from God."

Linda Edwards, spokeswoman for Texas Governor Bush, says the state has long had contracts with faith-based groups that provide social services. Participation in the Jobs Partnership was "voluntary," she says, adding, "The law requires that people have a choice of a secular alternative program."

Prosecuting lawyers say no such alternative existed.

Oddly enough, the state's contract with Jobs Partnership ended in December 1999. "It was a mutual understanding," says Chris Traylor, spokesman for the Department of Human Services. "The program was able to continue without our providing them with funds."

Even so, the lawsuit calls on the state to take back the $8,000 it gave the Jobs Partnership program.

For Robert Rector, a conservative welfare expert who helped craft the 1996 welfare-reform law, America needs more church involvement in social problems, not less.

"What we need is more transformation of individuals; that's the key to many problems of the social underclass," says Mr. Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "In drug abuse, child abuse, out-of-wedlock childbirth, the church is overwhelmingly effective in solving these problems."

Despite federal and state restrictions against government funds being used for religious indoctrination or sectarian worship, Rector believes there is legal precedent for funding faith-based programs. In a case in Washington State, the plaintiff sought to use state money for vocational training to attend a seminary. The state said no, but the US Supreme Court, led by Justice Thurgood Marshall, overruled them.

"The case law is quite strong that these programs can be explicitly religious and it's no problem," says Rector. "Anyone who looks at this objectively can see that these programs have something that the underclass needs. To cut that off is an act of hostility to the poor."

But Phil Baum, who helped file the Texas lawsuit, says funding faith-based social services with taxpayer money puts government in the position of choosing which religious group gets funding and which does not.

"We've lived in peaceful harmony in this country, and that's been maintained primarily because government has not been seen as favoring one group or another," says Mr. Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, which joined the Texas lawsuit.

The lawsuit is getting support from odd corners. Some mainstream churches, including the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, have taken positions against charitable choice, in part out of the concern that taking federal money will invite federal scrutiny of how the money is spent.

"The big problem is that a lot of these faith-based programs ... tend to secularize themselves to qualify for the money," says Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington. "They move away from the very things that make them effective."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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