Faith in government?

Debate heats up over plans to reshape ties between the state and religious groups.

Under Governor Bush's leadership, Texas was more aggressive than any other state in opening the door to faith-based organizations as allowed by the 1996 welfare reform act, enlisting them to help welfare recipients make the transition to the workforce.

As president, Mr. Bush plans to expand this "charitable choice" partnership to virtually all domestic federal programs. His proposals to "rally the armies of compassion" have stirred broad and contentious debate, striking a responsive chord with many Americans but striking a nerve with many others.

Two examples from the Texas experience illustrate why:

Lutheran Services of the South launched a well-received program called Coaching for Successs, in which women of faith act as mentors for single welfare mothers as they deal with the challenges confronting them in their search for work. With this help, surveys show, 80 percent of the clients have gained in self-confidence, and more than 60 percent are still employed or have improved their employment status.

On the other hand, Jobs Partnership of Washington County, a consortium of churches and businesses, offered a course on requirements for success in the workplace (partially funded by the state) that has spurred a lawsuit on constitutional issues. With the Bible as a text, one class each week was devoted to biblical principles applicable to the workplace, and the second to their practical application. In a state survey, one-third of all participants said that they felt pressured to change their religious affiliation.

Many Americans welcome the funding of religious groups as offering a more holistic and effective approach to meeting people's needs, while many others see a threat to religious freedoms and a serious break with constitutional principles.

Certain aspects of charitable choice, insists Marc Stern, a lawyer with American Jewish Congress, are "a wholesale breach of the separation of church and state."

The initiative raises such a thicket of issues that even Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, a strong Bush supporter, mused that the program "could be a real Pandora's box."

The White House expected opposition from liberal and religious-liberty groups, but has been stunned by a rising chorus of reservations voiced by conservatives. The contention has been so great the White House has agreed with key senators to split the proposal in two, introducing a bill on tax changes and delaying the component based on charitable choice for several months to allow for fine-tuning, according to The Washington Post.

The recommended changes to the tax system to boost private giving are the least contentious portion of the president's proposals (see box, right) and have drawn broad backing. They would allow the 80 million Americans who are non-itemizers to deduct contributions, permit withdrawals without penalty from IRA accounts for that purpose, and raise the cap on corporate deductions from 10 to 15 percent of taxable income.

But the debate now percolating across the country highlights several serious concerns about charitable choice, including:

* The funding of "pervasively religious" groups, and worries that this could result in taxpayer funding of a religious message.

* The potential for discrimination against faiths in the funding process (or, from another perspective, funding of controversial, non-mainstream groups).

* Support for discrimination in hiring, by permitting groups to select only those of their own faith; possibly cracking open the door to other forms of discrimination.

* Dangers to religious institutions from entanglement with government ties.

* Concerns that unless overall funding is increased, the plan simply means shifting dollars from some groups to others, rather than addressing unmet needs.

Breaching the wall?

The most intense feelings arise over whether or not this approach advances or promotes religion, and is therefore unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment: "The Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...."

"Forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious institutions they may or may not believe in is no different from forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues, and mosques," insists Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

A national survey by Public Agenda released in January shows that Americans have very diverse views on the use of tax dollars to support faith-based social programs: Thirty-one percent said funding of religious organizations was a bad idea; 23 percent said it was a good idea, but only if they stay away from religious messages; and 44 percent said it was a good idea, even if they promote religious messages.

Religious-liberty watchdogs, including some Baptist and Jewish organizations, fear that funding houses of worship makes it inevitable that religion will seep into programs or clients will feel pressured to participate in "voluntary" religious activities. Of greatest concern are groups whose approach is based directly on conversion or religious study.

President Bush, however, insists the proposals will not fund religion, but pay for specific services provided to needy clients. Yet he has also touted the capacity of faith-based groups to "transform lives."

And charitable choice was specifically designed "so that groups would not have to set aside their religious character as a condition of receiving funds," says Stephen Lazarus, of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), a Christian policy group that has advised Bush on the subject.

Although charitable choice guidelines prohibit support for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization," some see room for confusion and for religious ministries crossing the line.

A CPJ study of nine states' experience with charitable choice under welfare reform found that a few religious grantees were uncertain as to how far they could go in integrating their ministry into social programs. Amy Sherman, the report's author, has written that others felt free to "be religious" because they saw their program as voluntary, since charitable choice requires that an alternative secular program also be available to clients.

Public monies have long gone to religious groups that create separate secular entities for social services. Lutheran Services of America is the nation's largest nonprofit system. "Fifty percent of our budget of $6 billion is government money," says Joanne Negstad, LSA president.

Interpreting the First Amendment

At the heart of the debate are two very different interpretations of the First Amendment, and the sense that some members of the US Supreme Court are moving toward a narrower interpretation than has been in effect for some time - one more open to pervasively religious groups.

What the Constitution says, say proponents of charitable choice, is that you can't prefer religion or discriminate against it, that there has to be a level playing field for support to both religious and secular organizations.

Opponents hold to the historical understanding that religion is a special case. "The establishment clause means that religion is treated differently, and that's the way it is supposed to be," says J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. "Teachers can say a lot in the classroom, but they can't lead in prayer. Schools can hang a lot of things on the wall, but not the Ten Commandments."

It's clear there will be a series of challenges in the courts.

Barraged in a recent public forum with people's profound misgivings, John DiIulio, director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, good naturedly invited them to "sue me." But last week at the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals (NEA), Dr. DiIulio offered a prescription for calming some of the fears.

"The conversion-centered program that cannot separate out and privately fund its inherently religious activities can still receive government support, but only via individual vouchers," he said, not direct grants.

Some religious and other leaders lament the initiative because they see it sparking the kind of religious divisiveness this country has been spared because of the First Amendment. It will increase competition among faiths, likely lead to public agencies showing favoritism for one over another, or for larger groups over minority faiths, they charge.

"Charitable choice threatens to encourage unhealthy rivalry among religious groups," Walker says. "What better way to foster religious strife than for government to pick and choose?"

Already the prickly public debate has raised eyebrows and hackles in several circles. Pat Robertson publicly worries that groups such as the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and the Hare Krishnas would be eligible for grants. The Anti-Defamation League has requested that DiIulio disallow funding for any program of the Nation of Islam. Jerry Falwell has called for the exclusion of all Muslim groups on the basis that the religion of Islam "teaches hate," leading the Council on American-Islamic Relations to demand an apology.

The Constitution, however, prohibits government from defining what is a legitimate religion, or showing favoritism. And national leaders have been quick to emphasize that groups can't be dealt with on the basis of their particular faith, but on their capacity to do an effective social service job. DiIulio's office, in fact, will have no money to dispense. Funds will come through regular federal or state programs.

"It's not like President Bush has announced a big new pot of money just for faith-based groups," Mr. Lazarus points out. "It's that whenever government funds nonprofit groups, there has to be a level playing field, and those in procurement have to choose on the basis of who can deliver the service in an accountable way." If an official discriminates, he adds, his job will be on the line.

Charitable choice was necessary in the first place, he says, because some state or local officials were refusing to deal with religious groups at all. And in a "national report card" assessing how states have implemented charitable choice under welfare reform, CPJ flunked all but 12 states for not taking the steps needed to inform and involve faith-based groups.

Under civil rights law, religious institutions are allowed to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. Charitable choice allows them to do the same in government-funded programs. Until now, the separate entities formed by churches to run social services have followed nondiscriminatory hiring practices.

This has become a hot issue in the debate, and a national Coalition Against Religious Discrimination of some 20 organizations has formed to contest it. One of those leading the charge is US Rep. Robert "Bobby" Scott, (D) of Virginia.

"If you're sponsoring a federally funded drug program, why is it necessary to be able to say that 'we don't hire Jews and Catholics' ... if you are not funding the church mission, just the program?" he asked at a public forum on faith-based programming. Once such an allowance is made, Congressman Scott added, "it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that enforcing racial discrimination is going to be virtually impossible."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, (D) of Connecticut, who has spoken in favor of the Bush initiative, last week voiced concerns on this issue.

DiIulio points out that groups may not discriminate on any other basis than religion. He also compared this in his NAE speech to the ability secular groups have to hire based on their ideological criteria. "Planned Parenthood may refuse to hire those who don't share its view about abortion," he said. "Equal treatment requires that churches, synagogues, and mosques have the same right."

The tenacity of the differences on these issues is clear. For nearly three years, national organizations on both sides of the debate have been meeting under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee to seek common ground. Last month they published "In Good Faith: A Dialogue on Government Funding of Faith-Based Social Services." While they identified a number of areas of agreement, a good portion of their report is devoted to their "conflicting perspectives" on charitable choice.

The faith-based initiative "is a work in progress that will be subjected to a lot of re-examination," says Dr. Murray Friedman, who coordinated the dialogue. "We know religion has something important to say about the ability of people to rehabilitate themselves. And we know there is a vast public out there that is hurting badly," he adds. "How do you balance that need with these broad concerns?"


'Rallying the armies of compassion'

President Bush has announced an ambitious initiative to enlist faith-based groups directly in government efforts to meet society's needs. A centerpiece of his "compassionate conservatism," the proposals call for:

* An Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House - and encouraging states to create similar offices.

* Centers set up in five federal departments (Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Housing and Urban Development) to eliminate legislative and regulatory barriers to funding religious groups.

* Expanding "charitable choice" beyond the current four federal programs to virtually all domestic programs.

* Pioneering new models of private/public partnership.

* Creating a Compassion Capital Fund of matching private/federal dollars for technical assistance and start-up capital to small groups, to help them expand or emulate model programs.

* Stimulating an outpouring of private giving to charities through a set of tax changes and incentives.

* Collaborating with the Corporation for National Service to enlist volunteers to work with faith-based and community groups.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Faith in government?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today