In February of 1811, President James Madison vetoed a congressional bill incorporating an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. Citing the First Amendment, Madison said the measure "exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions."
The bill indicated that the church, among other things, would be caring for the poor and educating disadvantaged children. No federal funds were allocated for these projects, but Madison was wary about any doors the proposal might open.
In his veto message, he told Congress the measure was "altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity." He added that the bill could "be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."
In other words, Madison, the Father of our Constitution, thought churches should raise their own donations to do religious work, and he opposed any hint that the federal government might fund religion.
We've come a long way since Madison's day, but we're still discussing the church-state ramifications of government relationships with faith-based charities.
Last week, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) sent letters to the presidential candidates about the "faith-based" initiative.
The five-page missive gives a brief background about the initiative (including its early incarnation as so-called "charitable choice") and implores John McCain and Barack Obama to honor the Constitution and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans. When religious groups partner with the government, the letter insists, the ground rules have to be clear and strong.
"As you evaluate and formulate policies on the role that community-based and faith-based organizations should play in providing government-funded social services," the Coalition said, "we write to urge you to restore religious liberty and civil rights protections into these partnerships. We believe that the policies pursued under the title 'Faith-Based Initiative' in recent years lack the proper accountability and constitutional safeguards necessary to preserve the independence of religious organizations and protect the civil rights and religious liberty of the employees and beneficiaries of government-funded programs."
The Coalition urged McCain and Obama to dramatically change Bush administration policy and ban religious discrimination in hiring in publicly funded social services run by faith-based groups. The letter also called for the government to clearly protect social service beneficiaries from proselytism and other religious pressures, to deny direct funding to houses of worship and to honor state and local anti-discrimation laws.
The Coalition is broadly based. Its membership ranges from the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the Anti-Defamation League and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society to the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Education Association. Civil liberties groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance and People For the American Way are also on board.
Here's hoping McCain and Obama give the CARD letter careful attention.