Faith-based initiative may be more curse than blessing, panelists say

Friday, May 11, 2001

NEW YORK — Religious organizations often do an excellent job of helping the poor, the hungry and the drug-addicted. That’s the good news.

But, if President George W. Bush manages to put more government money into financing such efforts, there could be some dangerously bad news on the horizon for the religious organizations, the taxpayers — and the First Amendment.

That was the assessment of most of a panel of religious and legal experts who yesterday debated issues relating to Bush’s proposal to fund religious groups’ social service programs. The panel convened at the First Amendment Center for release of a center-sponsored report, by religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas, titled Partnership or Peril? Faith-based Initiatives and the First Amendment.

The debate, attended by about 60 community leaders and interested residents, revealed a spectrum of reactions to the plan — almost all of which offered some caveat or concern regarding Bush’s proposal.

Among the concerns addressed by the panelists:

  • Faith-based groups from churches to mosques could lose their religious autonomy as they are forced to heel to government rules.
  • Religious groups might use public money to finance their religious worship, in essence charging taxpayers for religious activities.

Either way, religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment could be in serious jeopardy, panelists said.

“The more people learn about the president’s faith-based initiative, the more skeptical they are about it,” said panel moderator Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “That should put the president on notice. He will need to find some common ground.”

That common ground was eagerly sought yesterday, but not easily found.

Elliott Mincberg, general counsel of the constitutional and civil rights advocacy group People for the American Way, said one of his biggest concerns was that Bush’s initiative would give money directly to religious organizations rather than to religious affiliates.

Religious affiliates that now receive public money — groups like Catholic Charities or United Jewish Communities — exist primarily to help people in need, he said. By contrast, religious organizations like churches and synagogues proselytize by nature, he added.

“It is a serious concern,” Mincberg said, that these explicitly religious groups might not only use public money for religious purposes but would exclude from these publicly funded services people disinclined to practice their particular religion.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said strict government oversight would be needed to ensure that such violations of the First Amendment do not take place.

But at the same time, he added, such oversight would no doubt interfere with a church’s religious independence — and that’s precisely why he would want his church to refuse Bush’s offered money.

“I think government oversight is an absolute necessity,” he said. “I just don’t want it in my church.

“As the old saw goes, sooner or later, with government shekels come government shackles.”

The choice is not so easy for every religious organization, Land said.

While he believes that many suburban churches have enough money to finance their own social programs, he said he knows of several inner-city church leaders looking forward to getting government money so they can better help their communities.

But, as Land says, with government money would come government restrictions.

In his report, Thomas notes that the degree of those restrictions would depend on whether the public funds were distributed directly or indirectly.

Those organizations that would receive direct funding — grants or contracts, for example — would be required to provide “strictly secular” programs, meaning the government money could not be used for “worship, sectarian instruction or proselytizing,” the report says.

But organizations that would receive indirect funding, perhaps in the form of child-care vouchers, “need not give up their religious character,” according to the report.

Yet, the report goes on to say, all religious organizations receiving money, whether directly or indirectly, would be required to provide services in a “nondiscriminatory” manner.

“In other words,” Thomas writes, “religious organizations may not deny funded services to citizens on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin or the recipient’s refusal to participate in a religious activity.”

Discrimination is a more complicated issue for religious groups than for many other types of organizations, the panelists said.

Existing law allows churches to discriminate on the basis of religious preference when it comes to hiring — the idea being, according to Thomas, that an evangelical church, for example, should not be legally required to hire an atheist as a receptionist.

In his report, Thomas suggests that the religious organizations that accept public money for social programs could give up the right to discriminate in order to create a work force that is more religiously diverse and, thus, less likely to proselytize.

However, Heidi Unruh, associate director of the Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., bristled at the idea that churches might be expected to give up freedoms now allowed by law.

Churches and other religious organizations should be allowed to protect their identities, she said, not only by hiring the people they think best represent an organization’s values but by providing social services in the way they believe works best.

At times, Unruh said, that includes offering religious support.

For example, she added, while a church’s social worker might try to offer only secular help, the worker might see that a client could benefit from being invited to stay for a prayer meeting after lunch.

This is especially true, she said, in “one-on-one, transformative” programs, such as those that work to help drug addicts or alcoholics stay clean.

In those cases, counselors often have their greatest success by providing spiritual support; and it would be wrong, Unruh added, to require them to stay silent on the subject of religion.

“It is impossible for thoroughly religious organizations to tease out the religious segments of the program,” she said. She said she thought any First Amendment challenges could be handled well under the faith-based initiative guidelines.

This debate will go on for some time, Thomas said, because many religious organizations do succeed in efforts such as drug rehab where secular groups fail — and the groups’ religious aspects often contribute to their success.

In the end, the panelists said, the fate of Bush’s plans for faith-based initiatives is likely to be left to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would be forced to consider the constitutional implications.

In this scenario, Thomas said, timing will be everything.

“When will the Supreme Court get the case, if they do?” he asked. “Will it be one year or five years? And who will be selecting those justices?”

As Thomas concludes in his report: “When the decision finally does come down, it may serve to remind us just how pivotal the presidential election of 2000 really was.”

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