[Hpn] Faith-Based Initiatives: REPORT by AU (Americans United for Separation of Church and State) Separation of Church and State)

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Mon, 29 Jan 2001 20:09:02 -0800 (PST)

Will increasing government funds for Faith-Based Initiatives HELP or HARM homeless people? Why? FWD January 26, 2001 PRESS RELEASE Americans United for Separation of Church and State PRESIDENT BUSH AND 'FAITH-BASED' INITIATIVES AU Report And Answers To Frequently Asked Questions President George W. Bush has announced that the week of January 29, the second full week of his presidency, will be devoted to building support for "faith-based" government initiatives. As part of his approach, Bush reportedly will be unveiling a new federal office of "faith-based action," along with the details of his administration's plans to fund religious groups to provide social services. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has prepared this document to provide background information on Bush's position on the issue, his record in Texas and a preview of what will likely be discussed based on the president's materials and speeches made available during the presidential campaign. "Bush intends to throw 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 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 permits groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds, despite financial support for the government. Bush quickly became a fervent advocate of the policy, and as Texas' governor, was among the nation's first chief executives to implement charitable choice at the state level. Shortly after charitable choice became law in Washington, D.C., Bush created a 16-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups, which issued a report calling for a church-state partnership in the Lone Star State. Bush subsequently issued an executive order directing state agencies to work with houses of worship to provide social services while allowing them to maintain their "unique ecclesiastical nature." 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 specifics, see Bush's campaign website at http://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. According to news media reports, Bush proposes spending $8 billion during his first year in office on tax incentives for charitable donations and in direct support to charities and religious groups. (That figure may ultimately be even higher. On Sept. 21, 2000, Bush wrote in USA Today that he would allocate $80 billion over 10 years in tax incentives to help churches provide services.) Bush has expressed concern that existing federal funding mechanisms may not be efficient enough in distributing tax dollars to religious ministries so he has promised a new government agency to make things easier. Bush has explained that the new agency, once in place, will remove barriers that prevent additional funding of religious groups, coordinate federal funding from multiple government agencies and encourage states to establish their own faith-based offices to facilitate state funds going to religious groups. 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 sole 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? The religious freedom of beneficiaries would be threatened. Those in need could be subjected to religious indoctrination when they are sent to a religious organization to obtain their government benefits. Religious organizations are able to combine the government services with various forms of religious indoctrination, such as religious teaching or the excessive display of religious icons or symbols. 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 will 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 fa┴ade 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." Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states. 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