February 2004 Church & State | People & Events

President George W. Bush traveled to New Orleans last month in yet another effort to jump-start his "faith-based initiative," which remains stalled in Congress.

Bush touted the plan Jan. 15 during remarks to the Union Bethel AME Church, a predominantly African-American congregation. Frequently employing religious language, Bush insisted that the federal government should promote religiously tinged social service plans.

"Problems that face our society are oftentimes problems that, you know, require something greater than just a government program or a government counselor to solve," Bush said. "Intractable problems, problems that seem impossible to solve, can be solved. There is the miracle of salvation that is real, that is tangible, that is available for all to see."

Continued Bush, "Miracles are possible in our society, one person at a time, but it requires a willingness to understand the origin of miracle. Miracles happen as a result of the love of the Almighty professed, by the way, taught, by the way, by religion from all walks of life, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu; people who've heard that universal call to love a neighbor just like you'd like to be loved yourself, and then surround someone who hurts with love."

At another point, Bush, noting that the Bethel AME Church has a child care center, brandished a Bible, calling it "the handbook" for the faith-based operation.

Despite the fact that groups like Catholic Charities, Jewish groups and the Salvation Army have been receiving tax funds to provide social services for years, Bush insisted that government has in the past discriminated against religious providers. He vowed that his administration would put a stop to that and bragged that, despite Congress' refusal to enact his plan, he has implemented much of it through executive orders.

Bush also insisted that his plan does not violate church-state separation. He called that principle "a vital part of our country" but at the same time asserted, "I have asked Congress to not fear faith. See, the debate in Washington oftentimes is, well, the church will become the state, or the state will become the church. To me, that's never going to happen, and we won't let it happen."

Americans United, which has spearheaded opposition to the Bush plan, said the president is misleading the public about its true character.

"President Bush wants to give religious groups special treatment," observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "He clearly has no understanding of the separation of church and state. The government has no business funding salvation and religious conversion. That's the job of our houses of worship."

Following his speech in New Orleans, Bush flew to Atlanta where he laid a wreath on the crypt of Martin Luther King. Lynn said that action was especially ironic, since Bush's "faith-based" proposal would roll back the nation's civil rights laws.

Noted Lynn, "Under the president's plan, churches would be allowed to discriminate in hiring with public funds. That's taxpayer-subsidized job discrimination. This initiative would roll back nondiscrimination rules dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. It is hypocritical of President Bush to lay a wreath at the grave of Dr. King on the same day he is pushing a plan to roll back vital civil rights protections. This is disgraceful."

Concluded Lynn, "Our Constitution forbids government-funded religion. President Bush is trying to overturn two centuries of church-state separation."