Helping the poor without harming their rights

Sunday, July 8, 2001

Has it come to this?

Are First Amendment concerns about excessive government entanglement with religion nothing more than “constitutional niceties” that get in the way of helping the poor?

Believe it or not, that's the judgment of Philadelphia's mayor, John Street, as quoted in a recent column by George Will. And this from the birthplace of the Constitution.

It would appear that Mayor Street is fed up with those pesky First Amendment types who worry about government working too closely with religious groups.

The mayor isn't alone. Many in the White House and on Capitol Hill are also impatient with anyone who questions the constitutionality of President Bush's plan to allow religious groups to compete for federal dollars in delivering social services.

Street isn't waiting for these “niceties” to be settled by congressional legislation or court rulings. He's pushing ahead with plans to involve more religious groups in city programs in public schools, prisons and elsewhere. By the end of this year, the mayor anticipates that every public school in Philadelphia will be adopted by a “faith-based group.”

Will all these programs be constitutional? Street doesn't seem to care. As quoted approvingly by columnist Will, the mayor's not worried about “what some judge might say about what we can or cannot do.”

But wait a minute. Which religious groups will be invited to adopt a school? What are the ground rules for working with school kids? Will tax dollars fund these efforts?

Will dismisses people who raise such questions as “militant secularists” from “Washington's litigious and ideologically prickly factions.”

With all due respect to both Mr. Will and Mayor Street, it's not just a few militant ideologues who question government entanglement with religion. Opposition to some elements of these faith-based initiatives comes from across the religious and political spectrum.

In fact, a First Amendment Center poll released in late June found that a majority of Americans (54%) are concerned that public funding of religious groups may violate the First Amendment.

People who raise these constitutional issues aren't opposed to helping the poor. But they do want the government to deliver social services without undermining our nation's commitment to religious freedom.

Far from being “constitutional niceties,” questions about government involvement with religion are concerns about upholding the American experiment in liberty. For more than 200 years, the First Amendment principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” have enabled Americans to build one nation out of many peoples and faiths.

The poor need help. But the poor also have rights, including rights of conscience. That's why it's important to ensure that government-funded programs don't impose religion as they deliver social services.

Students in inner-city public schools need help. But such students also constitute a captive audience of young, impressionable children. That's why we must ensure that cooperation between schools and faith communities protects the religious liberty of all kids and parents.

The choice isn't government entanglement with religion or no contact at all between government and religion. There is a third way to be found in public policies that allows government to encourage the work of religious communities while preventing it from promoting or controlling religion.

The work of defining this common ground is already under way. Last month, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., teamed up with Harris Wofford, the Democrat he defeated in 1994, to form a bipartisan working group that will explore how to accomplish faith-based initiatives' worthy goals while upholding the First Amendment. The group will be convened by Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit conflict-resolution organization based in Washington.

Can we do this? Can we address America's urgent social problems while simultaneously preserving our basic freedoms? With a dose of good will — and a lot of hard work — we can and we must.

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