WASHINGTON – After months of rhetorical jousting, President Bush’s faith-based initiative faces its first real political test as Congress debates and votes on a bill seeking to implement the plan.
If nothing else, Mr. Bush’s initiative to expand the partnership between the government and America’s faith-based social service institutions became a political Rorschach test, with many people projecting their worst fears on the proposal.
Some warn of federal funds for religious conversion classes while others decry the prospect of taxpayer-supported employment discrimination. While the initiative raises many important questions, they ought to be the subject of cool-headed discussion rather than over-heated fear-mongering. Many of the concerns that have been raised are answered by the pending legislation.
Opening federal social service grant programs to previously excluded religious organizations is not a new initiative or even an exclusively Republican one. President Clinton signed four bills into law that allow religious social service providers to compete for specified grant streams on equal terms with secular providers. The Bush initiative seeks to expand this principle of equal participation for religious groups to additional federal programs.
Existing “charitable choice” laws, and the pending proposal, provide that government grant-makers cannot red-line religiously run programs out of the funding pool on the sole basis of their religious character.
The goal is simply equal treatment for church-run soup kitchens alongside city-run soup kitchens. Importantly, while charitable choice provisions permit religious agency participation in government grant programs, they do not mandate it. Thus, any agency that does not wish to observe whatever rules accompany the grant need not apply.
Moreover, grantees must use the funds for the purposes of the grant. Thus, an agency may not apply for funds to run a job-training program and use the money for Bible study.
The agency must also separate the privately funded religious portions of a program from the publicly funded secular portions in time and place. This last point is an essential element in answering one of the legitimate concerns raised by the initiative, the prospect of government funding for religious activities.
The legislation provides two critical protections for the rights of people seeking social services.
First, it insists that no one can be forced to participate in religious programming, even when funded by private dollars after hours. Second, any person eligible for social services but unhappy with receiving them from a faith-based entity has the right to demand an alternative program from the government. If one does not exist, it must be provided to them.
The bill also preserves the status quo with regard to the rights of faith-based organizations. While opponents assert that it “turns back the clock on civil rights,” it is they who are trying to alter the status quo.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 first provided that religious organizations, while being bound by all other anti-discrimination laws, may make hiring decisions on the basis of religion.
This narrow exemption is, as a unanimous Supreme Court ruled, necessitated by the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. It is also necessary to avoid the absurd prospect of a Catholic parish being hauled into federal court for refusing to hire a Jew for its pulpit.
Opponents assert that notwithstanding this decades-old civil rights law, it ought not apply to a religious entity receiving a federal grant. This would indeed “roll back” this civil right and undermine the goals of the faith-based initiative as well.
When the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act exemption in 1987, it was none other than Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall who emphasized that religious organizations were entitled to this exemption because it related to “the activities of a non-profit organization.”
Whether a religious organization gets a government grant does not alter its mission or non-profit nature. If the goal of the faith-based initiative is to get organizations on the front lines of America’s social welfare challenges even more involved in addressing these needs, demanding they secularize themselves or face lawsuits is the surest way to have them reduce their involvement. This would be most tragic for those in need who will not be served.
Much of the debate surrounding the faith-based initiative has stayed on well-worn rhetorical tracks. Dead-end debates about the separation of church and state are rehearsed, as are canards about civil rights and the proper role of government.
What members of Congress are really faced with is legislation that is sensitive to constitutional and civil rights while trying to bring innovative methods to serving people in need. It deserves careful consideration, and then robust support.