Faith-Based Bully?: Towey Bashes Anti-Bias Laws

The Bush administration's point man for pushing the "faith-based" agenda has promised to fight local government ordinances that stand in the way of federal funding for religiously based social service providers.

During a visit last week to Maine, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, groused about anti-discrimination ordinances that bar federal grants to religious groups that discriminate against minorities, such as gays. In a meeting with some leaders of Catholic Charities of Maine, Towey specifically referred to a Portland measure that restricted some federal Housing and Urban Development funds from flowing to the group. (The Portland ordinance requires all city contractors to provide employee benefits to gay couples or unmarried partners.)

In a twisting of the facts, Towey somehow turned a city ordinance intended to promote equal treatment in employment for all citizens into a discrimination threat against religious groups.

"Sometimes you see local governments that bully faith-based organizations and basically tell them that they have to compromise their religious beliefs and tenets if they want to partner with government," Towey told the Catholic Charity leaders.

Towey then assured the group that the Bush administration is bent on doing something about those pesky local anti-discrimination laws. He touted the president's executive orders that allow federal funds to be awarded to faith-based groups even if they refuse to follow state and federal civil rights laws. He added that the White House is studying "what to do when local ordinances discriminate against faith-based organizations like they do here in Portland."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, questioned the Towey tirade.

"It is not bullying to tell a group that it has to obey the same laws as everyone else," Lynn told the Associated Press. "Mr. Towey, although he talks about a level playing field, in fact wants to require secular groups to abide by civil rights laws but not religious groups. Frankly, they all should abide by basic principles of fairness and equality that we find in the Constitution, if they get federal funds."

The Bush administration has failed to win congressional approval of its "faith-based" initiative in part because it would allow federal dollars to go to religious social services that discriminate in hiring. President George W. Bush has used executive orders to force several federal agencies to award public dollars to faith-based groups without the usual constitutional and civil rights safeguards.

Earlier in August, the president reiterated his support for the faith-based initiative during a speech before the Knights of Columbus convention in Dallas. Bush praised the Catholic men's group, calling them "soldiers in the armies of compassion" and assured them that they "have a friend in this administration."

Bush also announced the release of $43 million in funding through the "Compassion Capital" program and said that he believed "one of the most effective ways our government can help those in need is to help the charities and community groups that are doing God's work every day. That's what I believe government ought to do. I believe government needs to stand on the side of faith-based groups, not against faith-based groups, when they come to saving lives."

Touting addiction vouchers that will fund religion-based treatment programs, Bush said, "Government is not good at changing hearts. The Almighty God is good at changing hearts, which happens to be the cornerstone of effective faith-based programs.'