By Jeremy Leaming

President George W. Bush doesn’t have much use for the separation of church and state. In fact, he seems to see that venerable constitutional principle as an obstacle to his goals.

Speaking at a “faith-based” prisoner reentry program in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 29, Bush said, “When I came into office, the nation’s traditions of religious freedom and equal opportunity were facing unnecessary obstacles. Throughout America, religious and community groups were providing effective assistance to people in need, but there was a great reluctance on the part of the federal government to help them.

“There was the notion,” Bush said, “that somehow that there needed to be a clear separation of church and state, and therefore, we shouldn’t be using taxpayers’ money to help programs that were helping to meet national needs.”

So Bush said he created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to clear away the obstacles.

Now, seven years later, Bush is reinvigorating his controversial “faith-based” initiative to fund churches and church schools. In his State of the Union message Jan. 28, he announced a new national drive to make his faith-based agenda a permanent part of the federal government and to enact a new national voucher scheme to subsidize religious and other private schools.

“Faith-based groups are bringing hope to pockets of despair with newfound support from the federal government,” Bush claimed. “And, to help guarantee equal treatment of faith-based organizations when they compete for federal funds, I ask you to permanently extend Charitable Choice.” (“Charitable Choice” is the euphemistic term supporters used to describe provisions in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that were aimed at diverting federal dollars to religious groups.)

The day after delivering his eighth State of the Union, Bush sought to capitalize on what would likely be a short window of media attention. The 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, with 22 states voting on Feb. 5, were sucking up loads of media coverage.

At the “Jericho” prison reentry program in Maryland, the president addressed ex-offenders and staff and board members of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the program. Bush used the appearance at the East Baltimore row house to pump his faith-based agenda and again urge Congress to support it.

“If a program was effective because they were willing to recognize a higher power, if a program was effective because people responded because they felt a call from a higher power, then to deny the higher power really reduced the effectiveness of the program,” Bush said.

The Jericho program receives $660,000 each year from the U.S. Department of Labor to help non-violent offenders transition back into the workforce and community life. For about an hour, the Baltimore Sun reported, Bush met with Jericho administrators and participants and focused largely on lauding the program’s religious component.

Observed Bush, “One of the great things about a faith-based program, one of the great aspects of a faith-based program, is there’s a lot of people in our society who hear the call to love a neighbor. That’s, after all, one of the key tenets of faith: Love a neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself.

“Our government should not fear the influence of faith in our society,” he added. “Our government ought to welcome results. We ought to say, thank God there are people such as this in our neighborhoods and societies helping these good men.”

Bush’s stop at the Baltimore faith-based operation garnered significant press coverage, but it largely focused on his comments regarding his own struggle with drinking and how becoming an evangelical Christian apparently helped him overcome that problem.

“As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life,” Bush told the ex-offenders. “I understand faith-based programs. I understand that sometimes you can find the inspiration from a higher power to solve an addiction problem. This program helps along these folks who have been dealing with addictions.”

In his State of the Union, the president also signaled a renewed effort to push public funding for religious schools in the form of a new national voucher scheme. In doing so, Bush again took some shots at the public schools, especially ones in urban America, referring to them as “failing” and bemoaning the decline in the number of religious schools in those areas.

After trumpeting his controversial “No Child Left Behind Act,” and a currently operating federal voucher program in Washington, D.C., the president urged Congress to get behind a multi-million dollar federal private school voucher program.

“We must also do more to help children when their schools don’t measure up,” he said.

Bush urged Congress to support a new $300 million program called “Pell Grant for Kids.”

“We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential,” Bush said. “Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

Beyond urging Congress to approve a new voucher scheme, Bush said action should be taken to address the decline of religious and other private schools in urban America.

The president lauded his D.C. voucher program as successfully allowing some of “the poorest children in our Nation’s Capital” an opportunity to move from public schools to private ones.

“Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities,” Bush maintained. “So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.”

(The Washington Times published an article the day after Bush’s speech that focused on the decline of inner-city parochial schools. The article noted that in 2007, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington announced it would need to close eight of its District schools, citing financial woes.)

Even First Lady Laura Bush is pitching in to help Bush’s latest drive for vouchers. Following her husband’s address, Mrs. Bush visited one of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools that was slated to close because of financial troubles.

At Holy Redeemer Catholic School, the first lady praised the D.C. private school voucher program, saying that it had paved the way for students to “transfer from underperforming public schools to a private or faith-based school of their choice.” (Some 80 students at Holy Redeemer get federally funded vouchers.)

Ironically, however, Mrs. Bush also lauded a private effort by Notre Dame University to step forward and save the school.

“Just last year, financial shortages had placed Holy Redeemer on a list of imminent school closings,” she noted. “But through the Magnificat program’s partnership with Notre Dame, over the next five years, Notre Dame University will work with Holy Redeemer faculty, staff, and students to improve the school. Notre Dame is providing technology, textbooks, and supplies. The University will help Holy Redeemer improve its financial planning, and increase its parental involvement.”

Inadvertently, Mrs. Bush showed that financially troubled religious schools can be helped by private resources without a constitutionally dubious government bailout.

The Bush voucher scheme drew immediate fire from opponents in Congress and supporters of public schools. The New York Times reported that it “was denounced by some top Democratic lawmakers and teachers’ union officials as a national ‘voucher’ program that would only drain resources from urban public schools that in many cases are in need of money.”

There is no groundswell of popular support for private school vouchers. Indeed, voters in numerous states, including California, Michigan, Colorado and Utah, have rejected them. Moreover, studies of voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have revealed that voucher students in private schools fare no better academically than their counterparts in public schools.

Bush has had some success in promoting vouchers, namely with the passage of the D.C. voucher plan. In addition, Congress approved a short-term voucher plan for New Orleans students after Hurricane Katrina. With Congress’s poll numbers tanking, the president’s new voucher push signals he is bent on squeezing another voucher bill out of Congress before he leaves office.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has long opposed Bush’s faith-based funding schemes, arguing that they pose serious threats to the separation of church and state, as well as to civil rights protections.

Allowing religious groups to hire and fire based on religion when operating federally funded social service programs is an affront to state and federal civil rights laws. Americans United argues that religious groups, like all groups that use public dollars to operate social services, must not engage in employment discrimination.

There is also no evidence bolstering Bush’s oft-repeated claim that faith-based groups can operate social service programs more effectively or efficiently than government or private secular agencies.

Americans United also argues that the Bush administration has used the faith-based initiative for purely political reasons.

In a press statement regarding Bush’s latest push for his faith-based initiative, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn maintained, “Bush has never been interested in a level playing field for faith-based groups, as he often claimed. He has been interested in tilting the field toward favored religious organizations that want to discriminate with government funds.

“It was no accident,” said Lynn, “that TV preacher Pat Robertson, an ardent Bush supporter, got one of the first faith-based grants.”

Lynn added that Bush’s faith-based agenda has done “nothing to help the disadvantaged, and it was often used to advance partisan politics.”

Lynn is confident that Bush’s final moves on behalf of religious school vouchers and other faith-based funding will face an uphill battle, but he said supporters of church-state separation should remain on alert.

“It would be foolish to assume that Bush’s new push for faith-based funding and private school vouchers is dead on arrival,” Lynn said. “In an election year, it is vital to keep a close eye on Congress, as well as the White House.

“Religion has flourished in this nation because of the cherished constitutional principle of church-state separation,” Lynn continued. “The president does a great disservice when using his office to promote public funding of religion.”

Unfortunately, some political operatives disagree with that sentiment.

The day after Bush’s State of the Union, The New York Times published a lengthy column from former staffers of the White House’s faith-based office. The op-ed, by David Kuo and John J. DiIulio Jr., called for broadly expanded faith-based funding.

Under the headline, “The Faith to Outlast Politics,” Kuo and DiIulio offered a swipe at Bush for underfunding the program and the sweeping claim that constitutional law is no longer an impediment to the faith-based initiative. The pair also argued that the major 2008 presidential hopefuls in both parties are supportive of it.

In reality, the Supreme Court has not ruled that direct government funding of overtly religious operations is constitutional. Indeed, the former White House faith-based leaders’ op-ed piece seems to acknowledge that fact by noting that religious groups can only constitutionally use government funding if they are not overtly sectarian in approach.

Kuo and DiIulio also overstated the alleged bipartisan support of the Bush faith-based agenda. Democratic candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have expressed support for faith-based social services. But both also say they are supporters of church-state separation and laws forbidding employment discrimination by all government contractors, including religious groups.

Lynn, in a letter to the editor published in The Times, challenged the op-ed for its shaky claims.

“Kuo and DiIulio say the ‘Constitution is no longer a potential obstacle’ to federal financing of ‘pervasively sectarian’ social services,” wrote Lynn. “In fact, basic constitutional principles and sound public policy argue against such taxpayer aid to religion.

“President Bush’s initiative remains controversial because he has circumvented civil rights laws that bar employment discrimination,” he continued. “Using executive orders, he has allowed publicly financed ‘faith-based’ providers to choose staff on the basis of religion.

“Also, Mr. Kuo and Mr. DiIulio suggest that all the major 2008 presidential hopefuls support President Bush’s initiative,” Lynn concluded. “All agree that religious charities may work as a partner with government, but the candidates do not agree on the details of how that partnership should operate.”

Lynn says Americans United will continue to combat Bush’s faith-based agenda and the administration’s new drive for public funding of religious schools.

“We will work with other religious, civil liberties and public interest groups to oppose Bush’s disastrous faith-based agenda,” Lynn said. “The president has proven to be a persistent opponent of church-state separation; we will be just as persistent in our defense of that cherished American principle.”