Charitable choice needs devil’s advocate

Sunday, February 6, 2000

Remember the debate several years ago about “charitable choice”? That's the provision in the 1996 welfare reform act that allows religious institutions to receive government money to deliver services to the poor.

Advocates of strict separation between church and state argued at the time that charitable choice violated the First Amendment because it allowed government to directly fund “pervasively sectarian” institutions, including houses of worship. By contrast, many Catholic, evangelical Protestant and other religious groups welcomed the opportunity to expand their programs for the poor through partnerships with government.

But this aspect of the bitter fight over welfare reform now seems forgotten in Campaign 2000. Leading presidential contenders in both major parties are trying to outdo one another in their enthusiasm for partnerships between the government and faith-based programs.

No matter who's elected, we're likely to see the charitable-choice model extended to all kinds of government initiatives.

The problem with this bandwagon is that it doesn't have any brakes. If both parties support church-state partnerships, who will raise questions about the potential pitfalls and dangers?

To understand what's at stake, we need to take a closer look at the issue. Several key principles are widely agreed on by many religious and civil-libertarian groups.

First, there is a role for faith-based programs in the delivery of social services. Even most strict separationists acknowledge that government funding may go to religiously affiliated programs — e.g., Catholic Charities — if not to pervasively sectarian institutions such as churches.

Second, there's agreement that secular alternatives must be available for clients receiving services through religious institutions. And services should not be denied to anyone on the basis of religious belief or non-belief.

Third, all sides can agree that direct government funding shouldn't go toward explicitly religious activities such as worship.

But there is deep disagreement among religious and civil-libertarian groups about the constitutionality of government funds going directly to local congregations. Many separationists are convinced that charitable choice and similar proposals violate religious liberty by forcing taxpayers to support religious institutions. They also claim that the welfare law doesn't have enough safeguards to prevent tax money from being used to proselytize.

Some religious groups are concerned that government funds will be accompanied by government interference with their religious beliefs and practices. Others take the position that to exclude faith communities from competing for government funds available to other private-sector providers would be unfair and unjust.

Given the deeply held convictions on all sides, finding common ground among religious and civil-libertarian groups concerning the constitutionality of “church-state” partnerships is highly unlikely.

But charitable choice is now the law, and most of the men who would be president support it. Religious and civil-liberties groups — whether they like the law or not — need to work together to agree on safeguards for setting up these programs in ways that protect everyone's rights.

Without sufficient protections, religious institutions may find their autonomy threatened by government monitoring and auditing. And Americans seeking government services may find themselves subject to involuntary religious indoctrination.

Agreement on safeguards would not (and should not) end the debate. But it could do much to advance the common good by providing a principled framework for implementing charitable choice and other proposals for government partnerships with faith communities.