A Faith-Based Rorschach Test

Posted on March 20, 2001

The Anti-Defamation League foresees government funded Nation of Islam hate speech; the ACLU predicts divisive competition for government grants among America’s diverse denominations; the Southern Baptist Convention warns of the wholesale government regulation of churches; and Pat Robertson sees government funding for Hare Krishna recruitment looming.

If it is nothing else, President Bush’s initiative to expand the partnership between the government and America’s faith-based social service institutions has become a political Rorschach test, with many people and organizations projecting their worst fears upon the yet-to-be-detailed proposal. While the initiative raises many complex and important questions, they ought to be the subject of cool-headed discussion rather overheated fear-mongering.

To date, Mr. Bush has only actually done two things in connection with this effort: He created a White House office to study and promote the expansion of partnerships between religious social service providers with government and corporate America, and he created Cabinet agency offices to review and report upon regulations with regard to existing federal grant programs that discriminate against religious providers in their granting guidelines. That’s it: Study, promote and review. Not a word of legislation has yet been proposed by the White House, which has recently confirmed that it will move slowly in light of the complexity of issues involved. Members of Congress will introduce their own proposals in the coming weeks, and extensive hearings will be held. In contrast, Bill Clinton signed four bills into law that explicitly allow religious social service providers to compete for specified grant streams on equal terms with secular providers and, it is worth noting, the wall of church-state separation did not come crashing down.

Assuming that Mr. Bush will want to expand the initiative begun under his predecessor, let us review some basic facts. The four existing “charitable choice” laws do not provide for the indiscriminate funneling of government funds to churches and synagogues. They do provide that government grant makers cannot red-line such programs out of the funding pool on the sole basis of their religious character, as remains the general rule. They further provide that a religious agency need not secularize itself when it receives a federal grant. That’s it; equal treatment for church-run soup kitchens alongside city-run soup kitchens. Moreover, grantees must utilize the funds according to the rules of the grant. One may not apply for funds to run a job training program and use the money for Bible study or, for that matter, hate speech.

Indeed, expanding the pool of legitimate grant applicants to include religious groups might set off a new round of competition. However, the Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution demands government neutrality toward religion, not hostility; and the wholesale exclusion of religion from these programs on that basis alone is nothing other than hostile. Moreover, so long as the grant criteria remain neutral and do not take religion into account (i.e., we want a literacy program serving 100 kids a month, not a Muslim literacy program serving 100 kids a month), the competition ought not be divisive.

While charitable choice provisions permit religious agency participation in government grant programs they do not mandate them. Thus, any agency that does not wish to observe whatever accounting and accreditation criteria accompany the grant need not apply. At the same time, one can construct reporting criteria that are reasonable means of ensuring that tax dollars are spent for their intended purposes, but not so intrusive as to entangle bureaucrats with bishops.

Finally, America is blessed with a multiplicity of faiths and sects, and we should welcome the possibility that the richness of religious liberty has allowed new religions, even what some may consider “fringe groups,” to sprout on our soil. We cannot expect, nor should we wish, to exclude non-mainstream groups from participating in this new partnership. Such a notion is fundamentally inconsistent with the Constitution and with the fundamental principle of neutrality toward religion — that means all religion, whether we like it or not.

Recall that Rorschach’s test was designed not to reveal anything about the inkblot held up for inspection but rather about the viewer who announces what he or she sees in the image. We have heard the dire predictions from those who see a slippery slope down every path; some see deeply religious people as untrustworthy as they perpetually plot to proselytize their neighbor, while others see every civil servant as a regulator lacking restraint. Indeed, Bush’s faith-based initiative may well have revealed a lot about its observers that we ought to know.