House passes bill with charitable-choice provision

Monday, April 10, 2000

Rep. Mark Soude...
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would strengthen the partnership between government and religious institutions in providing housing for the nation’s low-income, elderly and disabled citizens.

On April 7 the House added a “charitable choice” provision to the Homeownership and Economic Development Act of 2000. Charitable choice allows religious institutions to compete on the same level as other nonprofit organizations for federal funds. Since a charitable-choice provision became law as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, however, civil libertarians and some groups of organized religions have attacked the concept as a violation of the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who introduced the charitable-choice amendment, argued on the House floor that the Department of Housing and Urban Development already allowed religious institutions to use federal funds to provide social services and that his amendment would simply codify the practice.

“Charitable choice makes it clear that religious organizations receiving federal funds to provide services may not discriminate against those services,” Souder said. “It makes it clear that they will not be forced to change their identity or the characteristics which make them unique and effective. These protections include their religious character, independence and employment practices.”

Souder also pointed out that both presidential candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, have said they support charitable-choice initiatives.

Some representatives and several national civil rights organizations claim such measures allow religious institutions to ignore civil rights and other laws when doling out services using federal funds.

Also, some Southern Baptists and evangelicals have worried that taking federal funds to operate social services could jeopardize religious independence and erode the wall separating church and state.

Rep. Chet Edwar...
Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.

Reps. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, and Barney Frank, D-Mass., rose to question the constitutionality of Souder’s charitable-choice provision.

“What about a citizen who happens to live in the area where the service is being provided to a religious organization who wishes to avail himself or herself of the federally funded service who is not religious and does not wish to be?” Frank asked Souder from the House floor.

Souder responded that his measure, like all charitable-choice provisions, would bar religious groups from withholding services from those who do not abide by their dogma. Souder said charitable choice “would allow a Catholic priest to have his collar on if it is at a Catholic facility” and “would not require them to remove icons, and it would not require [religious institutions] to hire people who do not share their faith.” Likewise, Souder said that charitable choice couldn’t require citizens in need of the social services “to go to a biblical study, to show up at church, because there cannot be discrimination against applicants.”

Edwards said he was concerned that federal funds would be funneled directly to pervasively sectarian institutions that have a history of discrimination, such as the private Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The founder and all presidents of the university have issued disparaging statements about Catholics and for years the university had barred interracial dating between students.

Edwards noted the Supreme Court had ruled that “direct federal funding of churches and synagogues and houses of worship is an infringement upon the First Amendment.”

Souder, however, said that as long as sectarian institutions did not proselytize, they could be eligible for government benefits without violating the First Amendment.

Edwards then asked Souder, “Next year, would a church associated with Bob Jones University be able to put out a sign saying, using your tax dollars, no Catholics need apply for a job?”

Souder conceded that under charitable choice “that could happen.”

Edwards then asked Souder whether Wiccans could be eligible for charitable-choice funds.

Souder, seemingly looking past November’s presidential election results, said, “It is unlikely under President Bush that the witches would get funding.”

Edwards, not persuaded by Souder’s defense, said he would not support the amendment.

“The gentleman (Souder) has made my point better than I could make it,” Edwards said. “He is saying under the Bush administration, they would pick out which religious organizations [would qualify] for federal tax dollars and which would not. That is exactly what Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson did not want when they [propounded] the Bill of Rights. They did not want politicians and government officials deciding which religious organization receives official government approval … . I would suggest that providing federal tax dollars to let group discrimination based on religion (occur) is a reason to oppose this amendment.”

Souder’s charitable-choice amendment to the Homeownership Act passed 299-124. The full bill was then approved and sent to the Senate for consideration.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has a history of opposing charitable-choice measures, said the Homeownership Act, if it becomes law with the charitable-choice provision, would allow churches to “engage in religious bigotry.”

“Souder proved a point we have been making for several years,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Under his approach, religious groups he approves of get aid from the government, and groups he doesn’t like get left out. For a member of Congress to endorse this narrow-minded approach is shameful and offensive.”

Souder, however, said that charitable choice as used in the Welfare Reform law has not undermined the Constitution and has proven that government and religious groups can successfully team up to offer social services.

“The current administration already makes these decisions in HUD,” Souder said in defending federal officials’ ability to decide which religious institutions can receive federal funds. “It has worked tremendously well. It is one of the only ways to reach poor people.”