States push laws allowing religious groups to administer welfare services

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

First Amendment advocates are raising concern over a provision in the expansive federal overhaul of welfare programs that allows services for the needy to be administered in churches and by religious groups with the help of tax dollars.

Several states are working to implement the provision, known as “charitable choice.” Initiated by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., charitable choice would let churches and religious groups compete for government dollars to deliver welfare services once administered by the government.

Ashcroft inserted the charitable choice language in the welfare reform act of 1996. States receiving block grants to run welfare programs must decide whether to use charitable choice.

Proponents say private agencies, including churches, provide superb services to clients without the bloat of a large bureaucracy. Also, supporters point to language in the provision which bars government funds from being used for worship, religious instruction or anything else that could be seen as a promotion of religion.

Civil rights groups, however, claim that as more and more states implement charitable choice, the constitutional line separating church and state will inevitably become blurred.

Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin are among the states interested in enacting the provision.

“In order for churches and other houses of worship to perform welfare services, states must implement the charitable choice provisions in the federal welfare law,” Julie Segal, legislative counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the First Amendment Center. “We imagine there are several states being pushed by religious right organizations to fund churches despite the fact that such actions violate the Establishment Clause.”

Segal said it is matter of time before the charitable choice provisions become a court battle. Segal said her group is simply waiting for a state to implement the provisions.

“It is the case that for years states have contracted with religious groups to provide some kinds of welfare services,” she said. “We are not aware, however, of any state, at the moment, that is contracting with religious organizations to provide unconstitutional services pursuant to the charitable choice provisions.”

David Caprara, director of policy at The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating economic and social solutions for low-income people, says states should be encouraged to implement charitable choice instead of being dissuaded by accusations that such laws subvert the separation between church and state.

“When the bill passed in 1996, NCNE conducted a seminar for states interested in implementing charitable choice,” Caprara told the FAC. “We had 18 states attend the conference and subsequently we have visited a dozen states interested in implementing the law. Our research indicates that charitable choice is gaining steam in the states.”

Caprara said Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin are among the states most actively seeking to use charitable choice to allow religious organizations administer welfare services. He added that government officials from North Carolina, Oklahoma, and New York have also shown interest in contracting with religious organizations.

“There are clear constitutional protections in charitable choice against government money being used for proselytization and all percipients are given alternative programs,” Capara told the FAC.

Moreover, Capara said groups opposed to charitable choice are defenders of the “poverty pentagon,” a group he says is hell-bent on blocking solutions to poverty, crime and family dissolution.”

Ashcroft is in the midst of creating a law that would place charitable choice provisions in an array of federal programs that shift social services to the states.

Steve Hilton, communications director for Ashcroft, told the FAC the universal charitable choice bill is in the process of being prepared for Senate consideration.

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