Congress considers religion as way to curb drugs, violence in public schools

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Congress thinks youth is too violent and consumes far too much marijuana and other illegal drugs. As a remedy, the House of Representatives wants to allow state governments to protect student prayer in public schools and to partner with churches to operate drug-and-violence prevention programs.

Civil libertarians and teachers’ unions are attacking as unconstitutional the Republican-controlled House’s intent to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

The 1965 act provides billions of dollars yearly to public schools to operate an array of programs, including Title I, which allocates funds to low-income families. Both Houses of Congress are considering bills that would alter the original act and add new programs. The Senate began debate this week on its 922-page bill. In mid-April, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved House Resolution 4141, which contains several programs that constitutional law scholars and civil libertarians have deemed constitutionally suspect.

Section 4001 of H.R. 4141 states that Congress finds that anti-drug and anti-violence programs that incorporate “protective factors” reduce youth drug use and violence. Congress further defines “protective factors” as including “a student feeling connected to parents and family and practicing religion and prayer.”

To encourage state agencies to seek churches and other religious groups to administer drug and violence programs in the public schools, the bill contains a provision its supporters have termed “charitable choice.” Charitable choice allows states to grant federal funds to operate social services. The concept has been turning up in congressional and state legislation ever since one was included in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush support charitable choice as a proper way for government to partner with nonprofit groups to administer social services.

Sec. 4147 of the House bill would “allow States to provide grants to or to contract with religious organizations on the same basis as any other nongovernmental provider without impairing the religious character of such organizations, and without diminishing the religious freedom of beneficiaries of assistance funded under such programs.”

Although Sec. 4147 states that churches and other religious groups are not to proselytize while operating the programs, it also bars government officials from requiring churches to alter their religious mission, including their hiring practices, in order to qualify for the federal grants. “A religious organization with a grant or contract under this title shall retain its religious character and control over the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs,” the bill states.

People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C., disparaged the House committee’s approval of the bill. Ralph Neas, the group’s president, said the bill had been turned into “a right-wing billboard” that undermines public education and weakens the separation of church and state.

The House bill also includes a section that has been championed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., which would give the U.S. Department of Education discretion to withhold the federal funds from any public school district that has a record of denying students the right to pray at school.

Sec. 14510 of the bill states that the federal education department shall provide no funds “to any State or local educational agency which has a policy of denying, or which effectively prevents participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis.”

Elliot Mincberg, a vice president and the legal director of People for the American Way, said the prayer and charitable-choice provisions in the House bill appear constitutionally suspect.

“In education, charitable choice is especially troubling, because you are dealing with captive audiences,” Mincberg said. “What about a school district that has contracted with a church that promote religious reasons for not taking drugs? That is a church-state problem.”

Mincberg also said that the bill’s prayer provision would “allow far right groups” to threaten a district’s funding if the district “guessed wrong on the very complex question of what is permitted in public schools as to prayer.”

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., defends the proposed amendments to the education act, saying that states are in a better position to determine how the federal education funds should be spent.

In prepared statement, Goodling maintains that the bill “reduces bureaucracy and, and increases dollars going to the classroom.”

“We continue our focus on quality, as well as local and parental empowerment,” Goodling said.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, said some of the bill’s proposals could prove unworkable.

“Providing government funding for religious groups to provide anti-drug and similar programs in public schools raises a number of serious First Amendment issues,” Haynes said. “Will students have other programs to choose from? Who will make sure that proselytizing does not go on in these programs? Before implementing ‘charitable choice,’ more safeguards need to be in place.”

Haynes added that the bill’s section on prayer in the public schools “is vague and misleading because it doesn’t define ‘constitutionally protected prayer.’ ”

“Students may pray in public schools alone or in groups, but the courts are currently divided on the question of student-led prayer before a captive audience at school-sponsored events,” Haynes said. “Until that question is settled by the Supreme Court, this provision will only confuse and mislead schools officials.”

The House has already passed a bill this session including a charitable-choice provision. In early April, the House passed the Homeownership and Economic Development Act of 2000, which allows religious groups to use federal funds to operate housing programs for the nation’s poor.