Tomorrow, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America will present testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mark Souder, assessing the “progress, promise and peril” of the “faith-based initiative” – a set of legislative and regulatory initiatives championed by the Bush Administration to expand the long-existing partnership between government and faith-based institutions in the delivery of social and civic services in the United States.
The testimony, presented by Nathan J. Diament – director of public policy for the UOJCA – addressed several issues. First, Mr. Diament noted the “significant progress” made by Bush Administration initiative “in reforms which have not only opened up federal grant programs which support social welfare projects to faith-based groups, but have brought real equity to an array of critical federal programs throughout the government’s activities.” As examples, Diament cited decisions opening up federal disaster aid, administered through FEMA, to stricken religious institutions, as well as making historic religious buildings, such as the Touro Synagogue, eligible for federal historic preservation grants.
Second, Diament presented the Subcommittee with an analysis of recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions, including the decision in Locke v. Davey issued last month, demonstrating that the faith-based initiative is constitutional, because the latest Court rulings clearly show that “the principle of government neutrality toward religion is the animating principle of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Third, Diament warned the Subcommittee that there “peril facing America’s faith-based social welfare agencies” recently brought “into sharp relief” by lower court decisions siding with “the logic of the critics” of the initiative. In particular, Diament pointed to a March 1 ruling by the California Supreme Court holding that Catholic Charities did not qualify as a religious employer such that it could enjoy a statutory exemption from providing its employees with contraceptive services as part of their health insurance. Diament cited “the fact that this ruling was advocated by the critics who have presented their objections to the legislative and regulatory steps undertaken to advance the faith-based initiative as limited and nuanced”as evidence “that, if they had their way, they would accept not only the reversal of the progress made under the current and previous Administration, but would seek to roll back long established liberties and privileges accorded America’s religious institutions including tax exemptions and other legal accommodations to a degree at odds with mainstream American jurisprudence or popular consensus.”
Finally, Diament urged House members to embrace the “hope” the initiative sought to foster, rather than the cynicism and fear fostered by its critics.