White House must build faith-based initiatives on common ground

Sunday, May 13, 2001

Current congressional debates and public-opinion polls reveal that the more the people learn about the president's faith-based initiative, the more skeptical they are about it.

That should put the White House on notice. If Bush wants to save the proposal, he's got to move fast and find some common ground with the opposition — especially on the First Amendment questions that have plagued the proposal from the beginning.

The most controversial part of the plan would allow religious groups to compete for billions of federal dollars to deliver a broad range of social services.

Helping churches and other religious institutions serve the poor is an idea that appeals to most members of Congress, as well as to most Americans. But according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last month, the public is increasingly worried about the details.

Which groups will get the money? The survey suggests that many Americans only favor “faith-based” programs as long as the money goes to the majority faith. For example, a plurality of people (46%) oppose allowing Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples to apply for funds.

Although the White House says that all groups will be eligible to apply, will the government ensure that minority or unpopular faiths compete on a level playing field with large, established groups?

Does government funding compromise religion? According to the survey, two-thirds of the people are concerned that it will. The public appears to share the worry of Pat Robertson and other religious conservatives who warn that government money brings government regulation and creates dependency.

Will religious groups force their beliefs on the people they serve? Sixty percent are worried that they might.

Should religious groups receiving federal funds be allowed to hire only members of their faith to deliver the social service? Seventy-eight percent say “no.”

Combine this public skepticism with growing opposition from many civil-liberties and religious groups, and you have a recipe for a public-policy disaster.

Even if the plan squeaks through Congress, it will face court challenges and serious grassroots opposition. Unless a compromise is found, the president may win the battle but lose the war.

Where's the common ground?

For a brief moment, it looked as though John DiIulio — the director of the White House office that oversees this initiative — was ready to offer an olive branch to the opposition.

Last month, DiIulio suggested that programs with religious messages and practices could receive vouchers rather than direct federal grants. That would address some of the First Amendment concerns about direct government funding of religion.

This month, under fire from religious conservatives, DiIulio says that religious groups should be allowed to apply for direct grants even if a funded program is religious in nature.

Despite this zigzag by the White House, some congressional supporters of the faith-based initiative may be willing to negotiate.

What are First Amendment safeguards that might satisfy some of the critics while still expanding areas of cooperation between religious groups and the government?

A report by religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas released this week by the First Amendment Center notes elements of a possible agreement. Among Thomas's suggestions:

  • Indirectly fund faith-based programs that feature inherently religious activities through certificates or vouchers.
  • Prohibit faith-based programs that receive direct grants from hiring only people of their own faith to provide the service.
  • Require that separate books be maintained by religious groups receiving federal funds in order to ensure accountability.
  • Ensure that the government doesn't discriminate among religious organizations. Eligibility for funds should depend on the ability of the group to provide the service, not the content of the faith.

As difficult as it might be to reach agreement on these issues, the White House would be well advised to try.

Without adequate First Amendment safeguards, a faith-based initiative passed by Congress risks stirring religious rivalries and tensions in the nation. Moreover, it's likely to be struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The president is right. We need to strengthen our commitment to help those most in need, and we need to support and expand successful ministries to the poor.

But it would be self-defeating to “rally the armies of compassion” at the expense of the First Amendment. After all, the very vitality of religion that the president seeks to harness is made possible by America's commitment to religious liberty.