Foreign Affairs: The U.S. Government Shouldn't Fund Religion Here Or Anywhere Else

Under the First Amendment, government is not permitted to promote religion generally or specifically

Americans United tends to stick to domestic church-state issues. We find that defending the church-state wall from attacks in this country is more than enough to keep us busy.

But every now and then an issue comes along overseas that attracts our attention. Such a story appears in today's Washington Post. It concerns the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which, according to a new report, has used tax funds to further religion in Iraq and in African nations, despite a prohibition on the use of taxpayer money that supports "inherently religious activities."

USAID's inspector general's office reported that the agency rebuilt four mosques in Fallujah, Iraq, and used tax funds for a "faith-based" abstinence program in Africa.

"The audit identified more than $325,000 in expenditures for the rehabilitation of four mosques in Fallujah, Iraq," reported The Post. "It also cited concerns that the use of Christian stories in HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Africa could be seen as showing a 'USAID-funded preference for Christianity.'"

The HIV-prevention program included a section during which young people were urged to "to memorize and recite Psalm 119:9, which says, 'How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.' Participants were then instructed to recite the passage's 'key concept': 'God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm.'"

USAID's response to this was curious: It claims its goals are secular. The agency said it was necessary to rebuild the mosques to create goodwill among the population and find jobs for Iraqi youth. While the agency admitted that some of the materials used in the HIV program are religious, it said they show no preference for Christianity.

I'm sure USAID considers its goals laudable. The Islamic faith is important to many Iraqis, and rebuilding mosques might have seemed a good way to win the hearts and minds of the population.

But that doesn't mean the approach was constitutional. The same principles come into play with the HIV prevention program in Africa. Battling the scourge of AIDS is important, but it must be done in a way that respects constitutional values. (By the way, USAID's claim that the program is permissible because it's not specifically Christian might have superficial appeal – Psalms is an Old Testament book, after all – but in the end it doesn't wash. Under the First Amendment, government is not permitted to promote religion generally or specifically.)

The Post reported that debate over the programs, which date to 2006-07, is "complicated by legal ambiguities over whether the constitutional separation of church and state applies to programs that are designed to advance American foreign policy abroad."

Actually, there is at least one federal appeals court ruling saying that the First Amendment's religion clauses do apply to overseas programs in some cases. In Lamont v. Woods (1991), the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a USAID plan to spend millions to build religious schools in Israel and other nations.

Unfortunately, the court in Lamont left open the possibility that in some rare cases, the government might be able to justify tax aid to religious institutions overseas, if it can prove a "compelling" need to do so.

A better rule would be to ban such aid outright. Only a strange interpretation of the First Amendment would recognize the inherent dangers of tax-funded religion in America yet permit it overseas.