House committee approves religion’s role in literacy programs

Monday, February 28, 2000

Presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore have championed legislation called “charitable choice,” which grants religious organizations tax dollars to run programs intended to help cure social ills such as homelessness, addiction and poverty. Earlier this month, a House committee approved a bill with a charitable-choice provision for a federal literacy program.

The mid-February voice vote by the House Education and Workforce Committee approved the “Literacy Involves Families Together Act.” The literacy act, intended to provide reading programs to Native Americans, immigrants and families with children who read poorly, was amended to ensure that religious groups could use the federal money to run reading programs without altering their religious missions.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., introduced the amendment, which exempts religious groups from the 1964 civil rights law that bars employment discrimination based on race, gender and religion and bars government from forcing religious groups to obscure their religious messages to receive the federal literacy funds.

According to the bill, the secretary of education or any other government official or entity could not deny an eligible group the funds for the literacy program because of the group’s “religious character.”

“A religious organization that participates in a partnership that is an eligible entity … receiving assistance under this [act] or is applying to receive such assistance shall retain its religious character and control over the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs,” the bill states. “Neither the federal government nor a state or local government shall require a religious organization to alter its form of internal governance; or to remove religious art, icons, scripture, or other symbols in order to participate.”

Souder’s amendment is similar to a charitable-choice provision that was included in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That provision, created by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., allowed churches nationwide the chance to receive federal dollars to provide job training, food pantries, maternity homes for pregnant teens and other welfare services. Ashcroft has continued to advocate an expansion of charitable choice to all federal grant programs involving social services, such as juvenile crime prevention and drug rehabilitation programs. Unlike in past government partnerships with Catholic and other religious groups to provide social services, charitable-choice provisions permit religious organizations to dispense the services without muzzling their dogmas.

Last May, in a campaign stump speech, Vice President Gore lauded charitable choice as a way to use the “unique power of faith” to cure “crushing social challenges.” Bush, also from the campaign trail, has promoted charitable choice. “Government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions,” Bush said last summer. “Church and state should work together with respect for our differences and reverence for our shared goals.”

Civil libertarians and others, however, have attacked charitable choice as a violation of church-state separation.

“There is the very real danger that with such schemes, Americans – including millions of us who are atheists and have no religious belief – will end up being compelled to fund religion through the back door,” the nonprofit group American Atheists states on its Web site.

Marci Hamilton, a professor and constitutional scholar at Yeshiva University in New York, describes charitable choice as “a dangerous tightrope act.”

“On the one hand, the religious entity is taking over governmental functions and therefore should be held to the same constitutional standards applicable to the government – such as prohibitions on discrimination,” Hamilton said. “On the other hand, the government cannot force religious entities to give up the religious elements of their identities. The only way this is going to work is if such programs are prohibited from giving money to pervasively sectarian institutions. Only if the organization can separate its religious activities from its quasi-governmental function should it be able to participate, and then only with supervision to ensure the funds are being handled in neutral ways and with the understanding that if the funds are found to support proselytizing activities, they must be withdrawn.”

Proponents of charitable choice, however, argue that for too long religious groups have unfairly had to mute their religious identities to carry out social service programs.

“This seems like a basic fairness issue,” said Joe Loconte, a scholar and author at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Why should groups with distinctive religious missions be excluded from partnering with government to deal with common social objectives? Charitable choice is very important because it establishes that religious groups must be protected even as they partner with government. It is trying to introduce fairness in the social service programs, fairness to both religious and secular providers.”