Senator seeks to expand reach of ‘Charitable Choice’ law

Tuesday, May 12, 1998

Congress is considering legislation that some civil rights advocates fear will give churches and other religious groups more influence in a host of government service programs.

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., introduced the Charitable Choice Expansion Act of 1998 late last week. The measure, now before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, directs that federal, state and local governments consider churches and other religious groups when doling out federal funds to provide welfare services once administered by the government.

In part, the law 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 be eligible to provide assistance under a program … .”

The role of religious groups in helping the poor was enhanced in 1996 when Ashcroft inserted the “charitable choice” language into the Welfare Reform Act. That provision granted churches the opportunity to receive federal funds to run welfare programs. The new measure would expand the “charitable choice” in several ways: First, states would have to consider religious organizations when contracting with private organizations to create and operate welfare services; second, religious organizations would not have to alter their religious nature to operate the government programs.

Proponents of the law claim that religious institutions can provide better welfare services than the government.

“For years, America's charities and churches have been transforming shattered lives by addressing the deeper needs of people—by instilling hope and values which can help change behavior and attitudes,” Ashcroft said in introducing the new bill. “By contrast, government social programs have failed miserably in moving recipients from dependency and despair to responsibility and independence.”

Matt Morrow, a spokesman for Ashcroft, said the law would open up government service programs, such as drug treatment, juvenile crime rehabilitation and abstinence programs for youth, to possible operation by religious organizations.

“The law treats churches and other private organizations fairly,” Morrow said. “The idea is to open up the process and allow churches and religious groups to compete for government dollars to run certain social service programs.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director of the D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says Ashcroft's provision flouts First Amendment principles.

“We have concerns that the provision would lead to government funding of religious groups without adequate oversight to prevent promotion of religion,” Boston said. “Those problems have not been addressed and therefore it seems inappropriate to expand the provision into other areas.

“The right wing has a long history of not understanding clear endorsements of religion. The First Amendment singles religion out for different treatment; it gets special protection from government interference but also is restricted as to government funding,” Boston said.

He added that his group recently hired an attorney to “wade into this swamp to compile evidence” for a likely lawsuit.

“The law contains no mechanism to safeguard against proselytization,” Boston said. “Moreover, these services can be given in totally sectarian areas.”

Morrow, however, said Ashcroft's law includes language “to warn against proselytization.”

He pointed to language in the bill that states if a recipient objects to the “religious character of the organization,” an alternative organization is to be offered.