April 2009 Church & State | Editorial

The question of tax funding of religion has been surprisingly prominent in Washington, D.C., lately.

President Barack Obama unveiled a revamped “faith-based” initiative that failed to address key questions of proselytism and hiring bias in tax-funded programs. Not long after that, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tried to add language to the economic stimulus bill allowing higher education funds to benefit religion. A few days later, the Senate debated the fate of D.C.’s federally funded school voucher experiment.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Most political pundits predicted that the first few months of the Obama administration would be focused almost exclusively on the economy. Yet Obama has been in office for less than four months, and there have already been three high-profile battles over public funding of faith.

What’s going on? Most likely, these recent incidents underscore the ongoing power of sectarian pressure groups. During the campaign, Obama said he would bar proselytism and religious hiring bias in his version of the initiative. Some religious groups didn’t like these proposed changes, and they have apparently persuaded the president to pull back, at least for the time being.

A similar dynamic is present in the other two examples as well. Powerful pressure groups are not happy with court rulings curbing, or in some cases banning outright, tax aid to religion. These groups are determined to chip away at those rulings and will use any vehicle possible. Their allies in Congress are only too happy to carry water for them.

These attacks on the church-state wall come from all points on the political spectrum. They can pop up in the most unlikely places and at any time. (Who would have thought the stimulus package would have been plagued with a fight over funding of religion?) That’s why Americans United must remain diligent.

AU and its allies worked to defeat the DeMint assault on church-state separation and also won a favorable vote on the D.C. voucher issue. But we know there is more to come.

In the meantime, we are urging the Obama administration to keep its commitments on “faith-based” hiring bias and proselytism.

There is no substitute for a strong presence in the nation’s capital that works constantly to shore up the church-state wall. AU is proud to play that role and will keep at it – no matter which way political winds shift.