Faith-Based or Faith-Biased?

As expected, the idea of pumping public money into faith-based social services is getting strong support from Congress. Last week the House passed an antipoverty measure with a provision to allow federal grants for religious groups that run drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation programs.

At the same time, a civil suit in Texas is challenging that state's funding for a church-related welfare-to-work program.

No one questions that such programs can do a lot of good. They've been particularly effective in some inner-city settings where churches are among the few pillars of society.

But a big part of the effectiveness of faith-based social organizations is their ability to offer clients not just a service, but a change in outlook and perhaps a spiritual boost. This religious component is a strength of these programs. Viewed from a constitutional perspective, however, it can also be a drawback.

Like proposals to give vouchers to parochial schools, public funding for welfare or drug-rehab programs with church ties raises the question: Can the religious element be separated from the social-service one?

Or, to be specific, does the Constitution demand such a separation when public funds are involved?

The case in Texas may help answer those questions. There, the private agency being challenged is alleged to have used frequent references to the Bible and Jesus as it helped welfare recipients look for employment. State officials have said that explicit use of religion would have put the agency at odds with state rules. They also emphasize that anyone offended by the religious content was free to switch to a state-run, secular program.

The existence of such options, plus clear rules about keeping social services separate from religious instruction, could be the basis for a sound partnership between faith-based programs and government. It could also be a burden on church groups who see their work as inseparable from their ministry. In practice, options and rules could be tough to supply, or monitor.

Americans must think hard about the implications of interweaving religion and government, however good the motives. It's a matter that should get a thorough airing in the presidential campaign. Both candidates favor public partnerships with religious groups, and both ought to clarify how they'd make it work without weakening the constitutional bar against establishment of religion.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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