Church-State Separation Advocates See Dangerous Flaws
Republican Plan Strikes at the Heart of Religious Freedom
Compiled by GayToday
Courtesy of Americans United
"Bush is throwing the massive weight of the federal government behind religious groups and religious conversions," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The president appears to believe that the government should use religion to solve all of the nation's social problems. This approach strikes at the heart of the religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment."
Bush's Support For 'Charitable Choice'
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush was often vague about specific positions on public policy. On faith-based initiatives (or "charitable choice," as it is often called), Bush never vacillated in his enthusiastic support.
Charitable choice originated with former-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept altered existing law to permit taxpayer-financed social service funding of houses of worship in a few welfare programs.
This legislative approach represented a radical change. In the past, government would sometimes contract with religious groups to provide services, but safeguards were kept in place to protect the integrity of the groups and the interests of taxpayers. Religious institutions would have to create separate secular entities to deal with public funds. Charitable choice removed those safeguards, allowing groups to evangelize while providing publicly financed services. It also permitted groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds, despite financial support from the government.
Expanding Existing Programs As President
As president, Bush intends to expand the charitable choice approach to unprecedented levels, applying the principle to virtually all aspects of government aid. (For additional specifics, see Bush's campaign website at www.georgewbush.com/issues/armiescompassion.html)
"In every instance when my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based institutions, to charities and to community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," Bush said on July 22, 1999, at a rally in Indianapolis.
It is his position on this issue that serves as the single most serious threat to church-state separation.
"Bush is proposing an unprecedented program of government funding of religion, involving literally billions in taxpayer dollars," said Americans United's Lynn. "His plan for social services would essentially merge church and state into a single bureaucracy that would dispense religion alongside government aid."
The Effect Of Bush's Changes
The practical effects of Bush's proposals would be sweeping and dramatic. Under his plan, Bush would distribute federal tax dollars to religious groups to provide a plethora of social services now being provided by government agencies or secular groups. He wants religious groups to provide services in areas including after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation programs and abstinence programs.
In other words, Bush intends to use tax dollars, houses of worship and his office of faith-based action to create church-state "partnerships" at an unparalleled level. In the process, the president literally hopes to change the lives of millions of Americans. As Bush wrote in the foreword to Marvin Olasky's Compassionate Conservatism, a 2000 book about expanding charitable choice, "Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities."
Church-state experts describe the new faith-based government agency as part of a misguided and dangerous approach to public policy.
"The Constitution requires a separation between religion and government, not a government agency designed to unite the two," said AU's Lynn. "The very existence of a federal office whose principal purpose is to give tax dollars to religious groups is in irreparable conflict with the First Amendment."
Americans United Responds To Frequently Asked Questions
How will the needy people who receive assistance from the religious groups be affected by Bush's approach?
All of this amounts to a serious violation of religious liberty. Imagine the discomfort of a Roman Catholic family referred to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam for help, or a Hindu directed to a Mormon temple to get assistance.
In many communities, Bush's policies will put the poor in an impossible position. They will either submit to religious coercion or go without food, shelter or other needed services to which they are legally entitled. Placing people in need in this kind of position is wrong. In theory, charitable choice is supposed to offer secular alternatives, but as a practical matter, those alternatives are not always available to those in need.
Will Bush's policy lead to federally funded employment discrimination?
Absolutely. When religious groups receive tax dollars through charitable choice, they are free to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring. Allowing religious groups to take tax aid and still discriminate will be a central part of the plan implemented by Bush's new government agency. A religious group will be able to receive public tax dollars to pay for a job, but still be free to hang up a sign that says "Jews And Catholics Need Not Apply."
Just imagine: your money pays for a job that you can't have because of your religious beliefs. That's not compassionate conservatism; that's outrageous.
Under Bush's plan, it would be perfectly legal. Taxpayer money should never be used to subsidize any type of discrimination.
Isn't Bush concerned about the faith-based initiative conflicting with the First Amendment?
Bush is apparently aware of the constitutional difficulties surrounding expansive public funding of ministries to provide government services, yet he seems to have little use for church-state separation.
For example, in a July campaign speech, Bush brushed aside legal difficulties. "I'm told by the legal experts that my initiative will pass constitutional muster," Bush said. "We will send money to fund services. But the money does not go to fund the religious programs within the institution."
This is a distinction without a difference. In most cases, the services being provided are explicitly religious. Thus, there is no way to fund religious programs without also funding religion.
If Bush believes religion is the key to changing lives, why doesn't he admit he wants to fund religious services?
It's a half-hearted attempt to make this effort seem legal. But just as importantly, it exposes a serious flaw in Bush's approach to this policy.
On the one hand, the president openly acknowledges that public funds cannot go to finance religion. On the other hand, Bush believes adamantly that it is religion that has the power to "change lives," which is why he thinks religious ministries deserve government support. Complicating matters, Bush believes the groups should get public funds without strings. In a December 1996 speech in San Antonio, Bush said Christian ministers will provide public services with tax dollars "on their terms, not ours."
This creates a paradox. Bush cannot change people's lives by funding religious ministries and maintain the façade that tax dollars aren't financing religion. If Bush intends to change lives by funding religion, he's violating the Constitution in the process. Unfortunately for his administration, Bush can't have it both ways.
Will all religious groups be eligible for funding under Bush's plan?
Apparently not. Initially, Bush said all groups would be able to receive government funds. In his 1999 speech in Indianapolis, Bush insisted that services provided by ministries be "non-sectarian" and said, "We will keep a commitment to pluralism [and] not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all."
However, in the spring of 2000, Bush was asked if tax dollars would be distributed to the Nation of Islam to provide publicly financed services. "I don't see how we can allow public dollars to fund programs where spite and hate is the core of the message," Bush said on March 2. "Louis Farrakhan preaches hate."
These comments suggest that there are problems with the policy to which Bush has not prepared solutions. Legal experts already question whether public funding of multiple religious groups is legal, but Bush would run into an immediate constitutional quagmire if he selects some faith traditions for public support, while excluding others.
How will the religious institutions be affected by Bush's efforts?
Bush's plan threatens the independence of the religious institutions. The government regulates activities that it subsidizes, since it is obliged to make certain that taxpayer funds are properly spent. Once churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are being financed by the public, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow.
Furthermore, many houses of worship already do a fine job operating soup kitchens and homeless shelters with voluntary contributions. Many houses of worship believe that they are called by their religious faith to provide these services. Participation in these programs and the tendency of people in the pews to "dig a little deeper" to help fund them may draw congregants more fully into the lives of their churches. Inevitably these contributions from church members will diminish if religious institutions start receiving public dollars to provide services. In the long run, charitable choice will make religious institutions dependent on the government for money and lessen church vitality.
"There's nothing compassionate about Bush's legally dubious scheme," concluded AU's Lynn. "Contributions to religious groups must come from supporters voluntarily, not be forced by the government. Bush's faith-based initiative is a constitutional nightmare and a disastrous step in the wrong direction."