March 2001 Church & State | Featured

During a brief question-and-answer session with the White House press corps Jan. 29, President George W. Bush was asked about his approach to the First Amendment and how his policies may conflict with the religious liberties guaranteed therein.

"I appreciate that question," Bush said, "because I, in the state of Texas, had heard a lot of discussion about a faith-based initiative eroding the important bridge between church and state."

Whether Bush's "bridge" remark was an innocent slip of the tongue or an intentional slap at Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state," no one is sure. But either way, the metaphor demonstrates all one needs to know about the president's approach to the Constitution's religious liberties.

Almost immediately after his succession to the presidency was assured, Bush started making proponents of church-state separation awfully nervous. He began his term with an inaugural address festooned with repeated religious references and encompassed by prayers offered "in Jesus' name" by invited Christian clergy. Directly thereafter, Bush issued a proclamation designating his first Sunday in office a "national day of prayer." His first week in the White House was devoted to pushing an education plan that features federally funded vouchers for religious and other private schools.

As startling as that first week was, it was quickly followed by an even more dramatic proposal from the president to merge the activities of religion and government.

On Jan. 29, Bush launched a major drive to provide public funds for churches and other religious ministries that provide assistance for Americans in need.

"[W]hen we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives," Bush said at a White House ceremony, surrounded by 35 religious representatives from a variety of faith traditions. "We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them."

For Bush, the realization of his faith-based approach to government is not merely a passing fancy or political gesture. Rather, it represents a central principle that will define his approach to domestic policy.

"It's going to be one of the most important initiatives that my administration not only discusses, but implements," he said during the proposal's unveiling.

Specifically, Bush launched an aggressive drive to create church-state partnerships with a series of policy directives. First, on Monday of what was labeled "faith-based" week, the president signed two executive orders. The first established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and directed its staff to "coordinate a national effort to expand opportunities for faith-based and other community organizations."

The second order removed existing church-state safeguards, which Bush called "bureaucratic barriers," that have regulated public funds for religious groups in the past. He also established faith-based "centers" in five cabinet-level federal agencies to complement the work of his White House faith-based office. Those agencies include the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education.

The next day, Jan. 30, Bush submitted a "faith-based services proposal" to Capitol Hill, asking Congress to broaden government funding for private service providers nationally by opening all federal grant programs to allow religious groups to compete for tax dollars. He also proposed expanded tax breaks for donations to religious groups and other charities.

All told, the Bush administration has drawn up a plan with a price tab between $8 billion and $10 billion for the president's faith-based efforts during his first year in office.

The expansive scope of the effort will likely have a sweeping effect on government programs that assist millions of Americans. The administration has said it will provide funding to finance faith-based services in areas including after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation programs and abstinence programs.

Bush's unprecedented efforts to merge church and state drew swift criticism from supporters of the First Amendment.

"Bush's plan is the single greatest assault on church-state separation in modern American history," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two."

During the presidential campaign, Bush would frequently refer to the new agency as the "Office of Faith-Based Action." However, the president and his advisers decided to also add support for "community" programs, an effort to make the office less legally problematic and more appealing to the general public. A report in The New York Times noted that there was even debate within the administration about whether "faith-based" should go first or second within the office's name.

Despite Bush's concern for semantics, the fact that the office's name was changed does not reflect anything but window dressing. Community groups were already eligible for federal funding. Therefore, the office remains primarily an instrument to fund churches and other religious ministries with tax dollars.

The creation of this new government bureaucracy, which will have powerful proximity to the president in the White House's West Wing, represents an aggressive move on Bush's part to support and expand "charitable choice."

The charitable choice concept originated in 1996 with Attorney General John Ashcroft, then a Republican senator from Missouri, during the drafting of the Welfare Reform Act. Once signed into law, the policy changed existing practice to permit public funding of churches and other "pervasively sectarian" groups where religion permeates every aspect of the institution.

Prior to the Ashcroft move, it was not unusual for religiously affiliated groups to receive public funds to provide services. Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, for example, routinely took government grants, but did so under strict constitutional safeguards. Tax dollars generally went to independent religious agencies, not churches themselves. The programs were largely secular in character, and discrimination with public funds was prohibited.

While Ashcroft's charitable choice scheme removed many of those safeguards in some welfare programs in 1996, states have been slow to implement the changes and religious ministries have been cautious about partnering with the government. Bush's plan will expand charitable choice to new levels by dramatically increasing the federal funds available for these programs while using his new White House office to require federal, state and local agencies to work closely with religious groups.

Bush contends that his initiative will meet constitutional muster because public funds will pay only for secular services. The president and other administration figures emphasized this point repeatedly while promoting his proposal. When unveiling his legislative plan to Congress Jan. 30, Bush said, "Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities."

Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor brought on by Bush to help implement his program, has made a series of similar remarks, telling the Associated Press, "[The government] can fund the soup, it can fund the shelter, it shouldn't fund the Bibles."

However, the president appears to have trouble making this distinction clear. Just days before announcing the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bush told reporters, "A compassionate society is one which recognizes the great power of faith."

Similarly, in one of the more oxymoronic comments offered by the effort's supporters, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind), a longtime champion of charitable choice and a staunch advocate of the Bush plan, told the Associated Press, "To change someone's life, you often need to help them make a religious transformation, but tax money can't be used to proselytize."

Observers note that comments such as Souder's, about the frequent need for religious transformations, highlights the essence of the Bush approach. At its core, the "faith-based" plan throws the massive weight of the federal government behind religious groups and religious conversions. Perhaps motivated by his own born-again religious conversion, Bush seems convinced the single most effective way to assist someone in need is to help that person turn to religion.

The fact, however, that the president wants to advance that agenda with tax dollars leads AU's Lynn to believe that the Bush plan devastates the First Amendment's church-state protections.

"Bush plans to give billions of dollars to religious groups to support the 'power of faith,' while promising not to change the religious mission of ministries," Lynn said. "Meanwhile, he tells the nation money won't go to fund religion, but offers virtually no safeguards for taxpayers or those in need. Bush's rhetorical acrobatics do little to reconcile the plan's obvious inconsistencies with the First Amendment."

To help his administration pull off this feat, Bush chose two allies to bring his faith-based vision to fruition.

Goldsmith,who served as a principal policy advisor to Bush during the campaign, will continue to advise the president on implementation of government funding of religious ministries and be appointed to lead a new national advisory board to complement the White House office.

For several weeks, conventional wisdom held that Goldsmith would be selected to head the office. Instead, the president tapped John J. DiIulio Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a self-described "new Democrat," to be the first head of the administration's faith-based efforts. (DiIulio says he has signed on to serve in the post for only six months.)

Bush, DiIulio and Goldsmith will have to navigate a difficult course. They will face unyielding resistance in the coming months from civil liberties, civil rights, religious and allied groups. Americans United, the leading opponent of Bush's plan, has launched an educational offensive to highlight the proposal's serious flaws. AU's Lynn and other staffers have appeared on all the national news networks including CBS's "Face the Nation" and CNN's "Larry King Live" to discuss the plan

On Jan. 30, the same day Bush sent a legislative proposal to Congress, AU hosted a National Press Club news conference with religious leaders from the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Unitarian traditions to voice concern and opposition to the president's plan. (The event was carried on C-SPAN.)

The Rev. Wanda Henry, a Baptist minister, underscored the inevitable regulations placed on houses of worship once they are incorporated into the federal government's bureaucracy.

"As an ordained minister and person of faith dedicating my professional life to the defense of religious liberty, I have one piece of advice for church leaders: Say 'no, thank you' to government funds for your religious ministries," Henry insisted. "You are doing just fine without the heavy hand of government on your back." She added, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the church is not the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state. Charitable choice threatens to make religion the servant of the state, rather than its conscience."

Bush's plan is also burdened by complaints about federally funded discrimination.

Once implemented, religious groups will be legally permitted to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, despite receiving public tax dollars. In other words, an American taxpayer could help pay for a social service job but be declared ineligible when applying for the position because of his or her religious beliefs.

This has drawn heavy fire from critics of Bush's proposal.

Americans United and a coalition of 18 other organizations sent a letter to Bush Jan. 30 seeking assurance that "you will not tolerate religious employment discrimination in any programs funded with taxpayer dollars." In addition to AU, signers included the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the American Counseling Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the National Education Association.

The coalition drew support from allies in Congress.

"I don't want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcohol treatment program and put out a sign that says, 'No Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job,'" said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas).

The administration seems well aware of the discrimination controversy, but is apparently unwilling to change the policy to protect the taxpayers.

Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" program Feb. 4, Goldsmith was asked whether groups would be permitted to discriminate with public funds.

"[A]n organization that receives federal dollars should be able to hire consistent with its principles," Goldsmith said. When asked directly, "So they can discriminate?," Goldsmith replied, "On the basis of religion."

The White House also appears ready to allow the government to engage in some discrimination of its own by selecting some faith traditions to be disqualified for public aid.

During the campaign, Bush promised that his administration would "not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all." Now it appears that approach will not be quite as easy as the president had hoped.

During his appearance on "Face the Nation," Goldsmith was asked about funding for Minister Louis Farrakhan's controversial Nation of Islam. He replied, "I would say that you can't discriminate on the basis of religion, but you can discriminate on the basis of the purposes of the organization. If the organization preaches hate or violence, it wouldn't comply with the terms of the agreement."

Recognizing a serious flaw in the plan, CBS's Bob Schieffer asked, "Who decides if they're preaching hate or if they're preaching love?" Goldsmith responded, "These are not easy questions. And they're tough issues."

Goldsmith faced a similar line of questioning on the Feb. 2 edition of John McLaughlin's "One on One," a nationally syndicated television program. When the host asked about whether the government would support a program run by Wiccans, Goldsmith said, "For me, I don't think that Wiccans would meet the standard of kind of being humane providers of domestic violence shelters."

Critics of Bush's plan were shocked by the implications of Goldsmith's approach to the program.

"The initiative is on constitutional quicksand," said AU's Lynn. "The administration announced that the government will discriminate against the Nation of Islam and Wiccans. It's only a matter of time until Bush's faith-based office puts together a list of religions the president likes and those he doesn't and distributes tax dollars accordingly. The answer to this question is simple: let all religions depend on voluntary donations, not government aid."

While Bush's faith-based plan will face fierce opposition, the president will have the luxury of support from ideological allies in the U.S. Congress. On Jan. 30, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) hosted a press conference in the Capitol where a handful of legislators expressed rousing support for Bush's effort.

"These common sense partnerships between government and faith-based organizations will help Americans in need," Watts said. Before concluding his remarks, however, the Oklahoma Republican took a swipe at the First Amendment, referring to church-state separation as "nonsense," and concluding that the constitutional principle is "the least of our concerns."

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) expressed a similar sentiment. After assuring those in attendance that "regulations will be in place," the newly re-elected senator noted, "I'd like to remind everyone that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution."

Bush's support from some of Congress' most right-wing representatives speaks to a larger political dynamic at play with the president's faith-based initiatives. The White House has emphasized support for a faith-based approach as part of the "next step in welfare reform" and a meaningful way to reach out to racial minorities and inner city families.

However, prominent African American leaders have bluntly criticized Bush's plan.

"I don't think this proposal should allow the government to remove itself from the role it should play in delivering government services," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and himself a Baptist minister. Lewis added, "I think there has to be a strong wall, a solid wall between church and state. I don't want to see religious groups out trying to convert or proselytize with federal dollars."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

So far, the primary support for Bush's initiatives has come from Religious Right groups and leaders, including TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

Additional information about Bush's motivation for introducing these initiatives came Jan. 31 in a private White House meeting with Catholic bishops and leaders from Catholic charities. Bush spoke openly and candidly about his intentions for his faith-based project, largely because the president did not know that his comments were being overheard by reporters in the White House pressroom.

During his private meeting, the president indicated that he believes his efforts will assist the anti-abortion movement in the United States.

"See, this faith-based initiative really ties into a larger cultural issue that we are working on," Bush told the Catholic leaders. "It begins to affect the life issue." Bush added, "When you're talking about welcoming people of faith to help people who are disadvantaged, the logical step is also those babies."

Whether the president's efforts are motivated by a desire to end abortion, aid religious ministries, merge religion and government or some combination thereof, Bush's plan has quickly become the number one target of advocates of church-state separation.

"This is a radical and dangerous idea," concluded AU's Lynn. "Bush plans to drop off the poor on the church steps one day, then a bag of money the next and hope they find each other. That's not compassionate conservatism, that's outrageous."