Faith-based plan fraught with thorny issues

Saturday, July 21, 2001

We, as a nation, haven’t suffered under an “official” religion since our days as a colony of Great Britain. We are one nation, composed of many people, representing many faiths, with the freedom to exercise our chosen religion without discrimination. That has been so since December 15, 1791, when the First Amendment was ratified.

Now, as the president attempts his experiment in faith-based initiatives, we are presented with a dilemma: How to reconcile the encouragement of religious groups’ involvement in providing social services without subverting the First Amendment, controlling religion, or proselytizing a particular religion. We are also faced with the issue of reconciling the beliefs of some religions with federal, local, and state laws.

The most recent controversy to confront President Bush’s plan to funnel federal funds to religious organizations that provide social services came [last] week, in the form of the Salvation Army’s request that religious charities be exempted from compliance with local and state laws that forbid discrimination against hiring gays and lesbians.

The Salvation Army, a practicing Christian church, wanted the federal government to make it possible for religious organizations to skirt these laws if they were on the receiving end of government money as part of Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

The Salvation Army, like many other religions, views homosexuality or lesbianism as a sin — aberration to be abhorred — that is their right under the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion. The Salvation Army’s request that all religious organizations be granted immunity from state and local laws banning discrimination, however, points up the thorny problems facing the president’s faith-based initiatives program — how to give federal funds to religious organizations without circumventing laws against discrimination.

Suddenly the argument is not just about separation of church and state, but about fairness. While religions are free to be exclusionary toward a group based on their beliefs, like the Salvation Army, or inclusive, like the Episcopal church, is it correct for the federal government to appear to condone the beliefs of a particular religion by allowing it to circumvent laws banning discrimination?

Of course it isn’t. While not quite approaching the establishment of religion banned by the First Amendment, it does open the door for condonation of a particular religion’s exclusionary beliefs at the expense of those that are inclusive.

President Bush made the correct decision in rejecting the Salvation Army’s request. In the process, however, he’s raised serious questions about how to reconcile faith-based initiatives, the tenets of several religions, and the laws of the land — the First Amendment included.

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