Senator again urges expanded role for religion in social service programs

Thursday, May 27, 1999

A Republican senator has once again introduced a bill that would allow religious groups to receive federal funds to provide an array of social service programs on behalf of the government.

The Charitable Choice Expansion Act of 1999, which mirrors the one introduced last year, would expand a provision from the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That provision, authored by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., granted churches nationwide the opportunity to receive public dollars to run welfare programs. Since the Welfare Reform Act's successful passage, Ashcroft has worked to expand the idea to federally funded social services across the board. He introduced a version last year that never made it to the floor of the Senate.

Ashcroft's decision to reintroduce the Charitable Choice Expansion Act on May 25 was spurred, in part, by a political speech by Vice President Al Gore. Gore, seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2000, said at a campaign stop in Atlanta the day before that he endorsed expanding the role of religious groups to heal various social ills. Before a Salvation Army discussion of faith and values, Gore pledged that if he is elected president, “voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration.”

“The 'politics of community' will be neither government doing everything, nor the churches and charities picking up the slack when government scales back,” Gore said in his 30-minute speech, in which he also cited Bible passages and Jewish teachings. “A politics of community can be strengthened when we are not afraid to make the connections between spirituality and politics.”

As noted on May 25 by a New York Times political reporter, Gore's comments represented a departure for a party that is often associated with supporting the separation of church and state. Ashcroft lauded Gore's comments.

“Vice President Gore's interest in Charitable Choice is welcome news,” Ashcroft said in a statement released the day Gore spoke. “Congress has been in the forefront of encouraging the type of faith-based solutions that the Vice President is promoting today in Atlanta. The Vice President's support can be a very important asset to the efforts in Congress to expand this provision to other areas of federal law, such as housing, drug treatment, and services for seniors. With the work that Congress has been doing in this area, and now with the expression of interest from the Administration, we'll better be able to empower the organizations that are best equipped to instill hope and transform lives.”

Part of the charitable choice act states that: “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 be eligible to provide assistance under a program.”

Civil libertarians have bemoaned Gore's endorsement of charitable choice as wrong-headed and say the act would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, promptly sent a letter to Gore, criticizing his support of charitable choice.

“What you are proposing is a constitutional lose-lose situation,” wrote Carole Shields, the group's president. “This proposal will go wrong either way – either it will undermine the Constitution by supporting the practice of religion or it will undermine the churches' freedom by imposing limitations on religious expression.”

Elliot Mincberg, the group's executive vice president and legal director, said that charitable choice provisions would “ultimately harm religion and the Constitution.”

“Inevitably you run into a dilemma — you either have laws with absolutely no accountability, or regulations of churches or congressional regulation and control that will interfere with religious missions and programs,” Mincberg said. “Charitable choice distracts from better ways of providing support to religious groups' involvement in social service programs, such as tax proposals that provide incentives for all nonprofit groups to run such programs.”

Ashcroft, however, defends charitable choice as the best way to solve violent crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and other social problems.

“America's best ideas for helping the poor have come from grassroots communities and private organizations of people who know and care about their neighborhood,” Ashcroft said upon introducing the expanded charitable choice act. “These groups see people and their life experiences, not theories or statistics. We have known for years that government solutions have failed miserably in moving people from dependency and despair to responsibility and independence. For years America's churches and charities have been leading the way in helping the poor achieve dignity and self-sufficiency. This is why I have been advocating that government should find ways to help these organizations unleash the cultural remedy our society so desperately needs.”

Joseph Conn, communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says Ashcroft's bill blurs the line separating government and religion.

“We are concerned that the needy persons will find themselves in an extremely religious environment in order to receive social services,” Conn said. “I think in the long run religious institutions would regret taking the public funds because of the government intrusion that ultimately follows the money.”

Conn, moreover, said his group was troubled that a charitable choice law would permit religious institutions to take federal dollars to run social service programs, but still hire only religious persons to operate those programs. “We believe public funds should never be used to support discrimination,” he said. “This bill raises all kinds of delicate church- and-state issues.”