February 2001 Church & State | Featured

On Dec. 20, President-elect George W. Bush invited some 30 clergy and other religious leaders to the First Baptist Church in Austin to discuss his commitment to public funding of religious ministries. Though the meeting was closed to the public and press, participants acknowledged that Bush repeatedly emphasized a broad range of proposals that would create partnerships between church and state.

"This is not a political meeting," Bush told reporters before the formal discussion began. "This is a meeting to begin a dialogue about how to change people's lives." He added that he intends to focus attention on how the government "can encourage, as opposed to discourage, faith-based programs from performing their commonplace miracles of renewal."

Many of the clergy who spoke with Bush came away with the impression that the president-elect would help secure funding for their ministries.

The Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a visiting professor at Notre Dame University and founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, told the Catholic News Service that the session with Bush was "a breakthrough." Elizondo also noted his enthusiasm for a leader who "officially wants to encourage religious groups to help them do what they do."

Bishop Carlton Pearson, a Tulsa, Okla., minister who supported Bush during the campaign, was even more blunt about the practical effects of the president-elect's proposals.

"He's showing us the way to get around the paranoia of this whole idea of separation of church and state," Pearson said. "Nobody wants to be under control of the other but we do want to work and walk together."

Therein lies the problem as far as supporters of the Constitution are concerned. In a nation where the government must remain neutral on religious matters and funding for ministries is supposed to be derived voluntarily from believers instead of being mandated by the state, many Americans get more than a little nervous when the president starts offering clergy ways to "get around" the First Amendment.

For these reasons, Bush's clergy meeting which came just one week after Democrat Al Gore conceded raised eyebrows across the country. In fact, for those concerned with the separation of church and state, the meeting spoke volumes about the next president's priorities.

"It was alarming to me that one of Bush's first official actions as president-elect was an assault on the First Amendment," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This is a clear sign that the constitutional wall between religion and government is due to undergo sustained battering from the White House over the next four years."

Despite a short career in government, Bush has established a revealing record on church-state issues. Just as importantly, when considered in whole, Bush has offered a series of positions and programs that reflect general indifference, if not outright hostility, for the constitutional principle. To be sure, the subject was not generally emphasized during the 2000 presidential campaign. Nevertheless, when one considers the panoply of battles across the church-state spectrum, Bush has come down in opposition to church-state separation on virtually every contemporary controversy.

Here are some issues to watch out for.

Charitable Choice/Office Of Faith-Based Action

While Bush's campaign was vague, and at times even evasive, about specific positions on many public policy issues, the Texas governor never vacillated on his enthusiastic support for "charitable choice."

Charitable choice originated with former-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept changed existing law to permit taxpayer-financed social service funding of churches and other "pervasively sectarian" groups where religion permeates every aspect of the institution.

Bush quickly became a fervent advocate of the policy and was among the nation's first governors to implement charitable choice at the state level. After the plan became part of federal law, Bush created a 16-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups, which prepared a report calling for a church-state partnership in the Lone Star State. Bush subsequently issued an executive order directing state agencies to work with houses of worship to provide social services while allowing them to maintain their "unique ecclesiastical nature."

As president, Bush is prepared to expand the approach far beyond its initial role and apply the principle to virtually all aspects of government aid.

"In every instance when my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based institutions, to charities and to community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," Bush said at an Indianapolis rally during the campaign.

It is his position on this issue that serves as the single most serious threat to church-state separation because of the scope of the proposed efforts coupled with the direct nature of the public funding for religion.

"Bush is proposing an unprecedented program of government funding of religion, involving literally billions in taxpayer dollars," said AU's Lynn. "His plan for social services would essentially merge church and state into a single bureaucracy that would dispense religion alongside government aid."

Specifically, Bush proposed spending $8 billion during his first year in office on tax incentives for charitable donations and in direct support to charities and religious groups. Bush has expressed concern that existing federal funding mechanisms may not be efficient enough in distributing tax dollars to religious ministries so he has promised a new government agency to make things easier: the Office of Faith-Based Action.

Bush has explained that the proposed cabinet-level office will remove barriers that prevent additional funding of religious groups, coordinate federal funding from multiple government agencies and encourage all states to establish their own offices of faith-based action.

The practical effects of Bush's proposals, if implemented, would be sweeping and dramatic. Under his plan, Bush would distribute federal tax dollars to religious groups to provide a plethora of social services now being provided by government agencies or contracted to private, secular groups. According to Bush campaign materials, he would implement changes so that religious groups could provide services in areas that would include after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation programs and abstinence programs.

In other words, Bush intends to use tax dollars, houses of worship and his Office of Faith-Based Action to create church-state "partnerships" at an unprecedented level. In the process, the president-elect literally hopes to change the lives of millions of Americans. As Bush wrote in the foreword to Marvin Olasky's Compassionate Conservatism, a 2000 book about expanding faith-based charities, "Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities."

Critics described the cabinet-level agency as part of a misguided and dangerous approach to public policy.

"Our Founding Fathers created a wall of separation between church and state, not a government agency designed to unite the two," said AU's Lynn. "The very existence of a federal office whose sole purpose is to give tax dollars to religious groups is in irreparable conflict with the First Amendment."

Bush seems aware of the constitutional difficulties surrounding expansive public funding of ministries to provide public services, yet he seems to have little use for church-state separation. For example, in a July campaign speech, Bush brushed aside legal difficulties.

"I'm told by the legal experts that my initiative will pass constitutional muster," Bush said. "We will send money to fund services. But the money does not go to fund the religious programs within the institution."

The latter comment, about not funding religion, appears to be one of the most difficult sticking points for Bush's policy. On the one hand, he openly acknowledges that public funds cannot go to finance religion. On the other hand, Bush believes adamantly that it is religion that has the power to "change lives," which is why religious ministries deserve government support. Complicating matters, Bush believes the groups should get public funds without strings, demonstrated by a December 1996 speech when Bush said Christian ministers will provide public services with tax dollars "on their terms, not ours."

For Americans United, this paradox is among the policy's fatal flaws.

"How can Bush change people's lives by funding religious ministries and maintain the fa\xe7ade that tax dollars aren't financing religion?" asked AU's Lynn. "If Bush intends to change lives by funding religion, he's violating the Constitution in the process. Bush can't have it both ways."

Bush has also been gotten stuck in the difficulties surrounding support for religious groups he personally disapproves of. In 1999, Bush insisted that services provided by ministries be "non-sectarian" and said, "We will keep a commitment to pluralism [and] not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all."

Then, in the spring of 2000, Bush was asked if tax dollars would be distributed to the controversial Nation of Islam.

"I don't see how we can allow public dollars to fund programs where spite and hate is the core of the message," Bush said on March 2. "Louis Farrakhan preaches hate."

These comments demonstrate that there are areas of the policy to which Bush has not prepared solutions. Legal experts already question whether public funding of multiple religious groups is legal, but Bush would run into an immediate constitutional quagmire if he selects some faith traditions for public support, while excluding others.

Religious School Vouchers

Bush's father, the former President George H. W. Bush, recognized the early political cries from the Religious Right and parochial school lobbies for public funding of private religious schools through vouchers. While the elder Bush even expressed some half-hearted support for vouchers in the early days of the movement, there was never a strong commitment to the issue.

The same cannot be said about George W., who by all accounts, is the strongest voucher supporter ever to occupy the White House.

While serving as Texas governor, Bush fought aggressively for public funds for private schools, but never successfully got a bill through the state legislature. In March 1999, after winning a second term as the state's chief executive, Bush went all-out on the issue when he used his annual State of the State address to call for voucher aid to religious schools. Though the Texas Constitution gives very little power to the governor, Bush managed to use his political influence to stack Texas' Senate Education Committee with pro-voucher lawmakers. His efforts ultimately weren't enough, and his proposals never reached his desk for a signature.

Bush may have failed in Texas, but that won't stop him from proposing an even more ambitious voucher plan at the federal level.

According to materials made available during the campaign, Bush advocates a program that would provide federally funded vouchers worth $1,500 in school districts determined to be "failing." Bush has avoided use of the word "voucher" to avoid the political stigma, and prefers the euphemism "accountability scholarships."

Though the point received little attention from the national press covering the campaign, Bush's proposal includes a controversial provision which would require states to finance voucher programs, whether the states wanted to or not.

This point came up briefly in the third presidential debate when Vice President Gore noted, "Under your plan, Governor Bush, states would be required to pay vouchers to students to match the vouchers that the federal government would put up."

However, Gore's comments were in stark contrast to Bush's description of his own plan.

"Vouchers are up to states," Bush said. "If you want to do a voucher program in Missouri, fine. See, I strongly believe in local control of schools."

Gore's analysis of the Bush plan was the accurate one. According to "No Child Left Behind," a position paper made available by the Bush campaign, the Republican's plan would require that all states provide an "equal amount" to match federal funds used to finance vouchers.

Whether Bush was trying to hide the truth about his voucher plan or simply didn't know the details of his own education plan is unclear. In either case, Bush seems ready to advocate for the first national voucher program in U.S. history.

Early in the new year, The Washington Post caused an uproar among voucher advocates when it reported that Bush was prepared to abandon his voucher scheme in favor of a simpler, and more politically expedient, education proposal.

Pressure from the right began immediately. Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based Religious Right group, began criticizing Bush for possibly "backing out of one of his campaign promises." The pro-voucher Heritage Foundation dismissed the talk as "wishful thinking" on the part of voucher opponents.

All indications suggest the story was inaccurate and the administration will not back down from its voucher crusade. A week after the Post story was published, Scott McClellan, a spokesman for Bush's transition team, told Education Week the president-elect remains "committed to the proposals he laid out during the campaign, including providing parents with more options."

In addition to the staff rhetoric, Bush's actions indicate the vouchers will remain an integral part of his education agenda. Perhaps trying to send a signal about his commitments, Bush nominated Houston schools chief Roderick Paige to be secretary of education. Paige supports use of private school vouchers and advocated their use in Houston as recently as 1998.

During confirmation hearings in the Senate, Paige was careful not to ruffle too many feathers on the voucher issue. When asked about public funding of private schools, Paige avoided use of the word "voucher," instead saying he would try to "find what works."

Paige has not always been so careful. He told the Houston Chronicle in May 1998, "[A limited voucher program] doesn't weaken public school systems, it strengthens public school systems."

As recently as last fall, in an essay for Education Week, Paige argued, "[P]ublic funds should go to students, not institutions." He added in the Nov. 8 essay that "there may be a time when vouchers will be part of the mix."

Bush has also put together a team of officials charged with helping the transition for Paige as he prepares to take the helm at the Department of Education. The president-elect loaded this team with aggressive voucher advocates including Lamar Alexander, former secretary of education; Frank Brogan, lieutenant governor of Florida; Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; Lisa Graham Keegan, superintendent of Arizona public schools and Paul Vallas, CEO of Chicago's public schools.

There are also indications that the new administration is already thinking ahead on the voucher issue. On Dec. 21, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney went to Capitol Hill to meet with former campaign rival Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Cheney told reporters after the meeting that the two discussed some specific proposals, including vouchers.

Government-Endorsed School Prayer

As governor, Bush had relatively few opportunities to weigh in on prayer in public schools. But when he did, his position was in conflict with the separationist view of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

In 1994, Bush announced that he fully supports a constitutional amendment that would allow school boards across the country to make their own policies about school prayer.

At a meeting of the Republican Governors Conference, Bush explained that he believes an amendment could be helpful so long as there were no federal mandates on the states.

"I have no problem with a school prayer amendment so long as it is not mandated to our local Texas schools,'' Bush said. He added that if he were serving on a local school board that he would vote for the community to have prayer in schools.

This position could become increasingly relevant during his term in the White House. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) introduced a school prayer amendment to the Constitution in 1997, and even garnered the support of a majority of the House of Representatives when it came to the floor for a vote. (The amendment fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the Constitution). Istook announced at the time, and has repeated since, that he intends to push for his proposal in the future, and if Bush supports a change to the First Amendment, the political support could help Istook's efforts in the House.

In 1999, Bush waded into the prayer issue again. The Santa Fe, Texas, school district was facing a date with the U.S. Supreme Court over its practice of allowing prayers to be broadcast before school football games. While nine states filed briefs with the high court on behalf of the government-endorsed worship, Bush was the nation's only governor to sign his own brief; the other states were represented by their attorneys general.

 Before the case was decided, Bush told The New York Times that school-sponsored prayer could benefit students if they choose to participate.

"Why do I think prayer is important?" he asked rhetorically. "I believe there's an almighty loving God, and I think if students so choose to do so, it's an important principle."

When the Supreme Court upheld church-state separation and insisted that the school district remain neutral on worship, Bush expressed disappointment and said that despite the ruling, he continued to support the "right of all students to express their faith freely and participate in voluntary student-led prayer."

Creationism And Science Class

In the summer of 1980, then-GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan brought creationism into his campaign at a meeting of evangelical Christians in Dallas when he said he saw "great flaws" in evolutionary biology. Reagan added that "the biblical story of creation" should be taught in science classes because, as he put it, "Religious America is awakening."

The comments served as something of an embarrassment for Reagan. Yet his wishes, and those of creationists nationwide, were dashed by the Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard when the high court ruled that teaching creationism alongside evolution was unconstitutional.

The issue has not played a role in presidential politics since. That is, however, until support for creationism reemerged during the 2000 presidential campaign. In the wake of the Kansas Board of Education decision to remove virtually all references to evolution in the state science standards, presidential candidates were peppered with questions about the controversy.

Bush, at the time the GOP front-runner, expressed support for the Kansas decision and endorsed "state and local" control of the evolution issue. Bush told NBC Nightly News, "It's up to local districts to make decisions on how to achieve standards of excellence as far as I'm concerned."

On Nov. 11, 1999, Bush went one step further when he told reporters that he favors teaching the biblical version of creation along with the scientific theory of evolution.

A month later, in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Bush expanded on why he opposes existing law on schools teaching religious concepts of human origins.

"I have no problem explaining that there are different theories about how the world was formed," Bush said. "I mean, after all, religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism.... I believe God did create the world. And I think we're finding out more and more and more as to how it actually happened."

Bush's views on the issue fall well outside the international scientific mainstream, where the accuracy of evolutionary biology is accepted as fact, as well as constitutional law, which clearly prohibits the very approach Bush recommends.

Ten Commandments and Civil Religion

Official state support for religious texts and mottos is another area of church-state law that has drawn support from the new president.

In June 1999, while campaigning in Virginia, reporters covering the presidential campaign asked Bush about his position on government endorsing the Ten Commandments. At the time, the issue was being debated in Congress as part of a larger bill on juvenile justice.

Bush said he, unlike the justices on the Supreme Court, did not oppose government officials posting the Ten Commandments in schools and government buildings. "I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the walls of every public space." When asked which version of the Decalogue he would support, Bush replied, "The standard version. Surely we can agree as a society on a version that everyone can agree to."

Since there is no "standard" version, and different faith traditions translate and number the Commandments in different ways, Bush's answer made the candidate the subject of ridicule. More important than his theological ignorance, however, was the fact that his position on the issue reflected yet another example of Bush's opposition to church-state separation and Supreme Court precedent. (The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that state support for the Ten Commandments violates the First Amendment.)

Similarly, while campaigning in Ohio in May, Bush was asked to respond to a federal appeals court ruling that said the state could not use a biblical quote from Jesus "With God, All Things Are Possible" as its official motto. Bush said the ruling was not only wrong, but also "stretched [the court's] credibility."

"What's next, 'In God We Trust?'" he asked.

Bush And Separation

Bush was infrequently confronted with specific questions about his perspective on the First Amendment during the campaign, but reporters for U.S. News & World Report did attempt to pin him down on the issue of church-state separation during a December 1999 interview.

Bush was asked if he thought the nation had gone too far in promoting religious neutrality in government.

"Well, let me just say this," Bush responded. "I think we must maintain the balance of church and state. I think that's a really important principle." However, just before explaining the importance of funding religious ministries through charitable choice, he added, "It depends on the area that you're talking about."

That qualifier is telling when considering his overall record on the issue and his commitment to public policies that would undermine the constitutional principle.

"After reviewing Bush's record and hearing his plans for the next four years, his alleged support for the separation of church and state does little to ease my concerns," said AU's Lynn. "Rhetoric is one thing, reality is another. Our next president supports public funding of religion for social services and private religious schools, he's on record supporting a constitutional amendment on school prayer, he wants the Ten Commandments to be posted in all government buildings and he believes public schools should teach religion alongside science. In other words, he opposes most major Supreme Court rulings on church-state separation of the 20th century.

"Anyone who supports the First Amendment's religious freedoms has every reason to be alarmed," Lynn concluded. "We have our work cut out for us."