Lawmakers offer bill encouraging social service work by churches

Thursday, May 21, 1998

Congress is considering a bill that supporters say will encourage churches and other private charitable groups to help “foster moral renewal” in America's poor urban neighborhoods.

One section of the expansive bill has civil liberties groups concerned that the First Amendment's separation of church and state principle will be undermined.

Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and James Talent, R-Mo., introduced the American Community Renewal Act late last week. The bill has since been referred to the House's Committee on Ways and Means for consideration.

The act, if passed into law, would amend a section of the Internal Revenue Code to include tax breaks, regulatory schemes and federal grants for religious organizations to “stimulate the creation of new jobs, particularly for disadvantaged workers and long-term unemployed individuals, and to promote revitalization of economically distressed areas … .”

According to supporters of the bill, federal tax incentives and regulatory reforms can “encourage economic growth, job creation, and small business formation in many urban centers.”

One provision in the bill would allow churches and other religious institutions to receive public funds to operate programs or services to prevent or treat drug abuse.

The act also states that drug treatment programs can be operated in churches—amid religious icons, art, scripture, and other symbols—or other religious institutions.

Moreover, the bill mandates that churches receiving tax dollars may require their employees to adhere to a certain faith when administering the government's drug treatment program.

Joseph Conn, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the renewal act is a “frontal assault” on the separation of church and state.

“One of the most repugnant aspects of the bill is that churches can practice religious discrimination while operating a government program that is 100 percent funded with tax dollars,” Conn said. “This is a clear violation of the establishment clause that ultimately the courts will be asked to rule on.”

The First Amendment says, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case involving a federal law—the Adolescent Family Life Act—that provided tax money to religious and charitable groups to run counseling programs for pregnant teens and their parents.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority in Bowen v. Kendrick, said the federal law did not violate the establishment clause. Moreover, he stated that the establishment clause did not prevent religious groups from participating in government- funded programs to promote social welfare goals.

Rehnquist, however, said the decision did not mean that all government programs granting public funds to “pervasively sectarian” organizations to operate social welfare programs were permissible. If it were proven that a government program allowed “pervasively sectarian” institutions to use public funds in a way that advanced a religious mission, then the law could violate the separation of church and state.

Terri Schroeder, legislative analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the proposed bill would further blur the line separating church and state by allowing heavy-handed government involvement in church affairs.

“All Americans should be deeply concerned about a law that would allow the federal government the power to rifle through the receipts of our houses of worship,” Schroeder said. “This bill calls for mandatory and unprecedented audits of the financial records of religious institutions.”

The bill is not Congress' first attempt to encourage churches to start operating social service programs with public funds.

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., introduced legislation this month to allow churches to operate a raft of social service programs, such as juvenile crime rehabilitation and abstinence programs for youth. Ashcroft's bill—the Charitable Choice Expansion Act of 1998—is pending in the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee. The Watts and Talent bill, however, directly amends the tax code while Ashcroft's is a general bill that could affect numerous federally funded social service programs. Both bills have the goal of encouraging religious involvement in running social service and welfare programs.

“Some members of Congress apparently would like to dump all our social problems on the churches and then just walk away,” Conn said. “In many ways this action by Congress is very distressing. Congress has clearly not studied this situation or has created a law disregarding basic constitutional principles.”

Supporters of the renewal act, however, argue that it does not promote religious beliefs. Instead, proponents say that the churches and other religious groups can do a better job than the government of helping the poor.

“Faith-based institutions have demonstrated that they can transform the attitudes, values and behaviors of some of the most alienated and self-destructive people in our society, where conventional programs have failed,” said Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

“Therefore, even if one does not embrace religiosity, one can respect, appreciate and embrace the secular consequences of what they do,” he said. “Supporting faith-based intervention can be justified on strategic, secular, practical political grounds because it works, and at much lower costs. Government should not be hostile to faith-based programs.”