Bush Promotes Support For 'All Religions Under The Almighty God'
President George W. Bush continued to lobby on behalf of his controversial "faith-based" initiative in April, urging the Senate to pass legislation dealing with the issue by Memorial Day.
At a White House event April 11, Bush said he remains committed to expanding support for religious charities nationwide and wants to "eliminate the hurdles and barriers that prevent the neighborhood healers and helpers from doing their jobs."
Bush defended the need for his initiative by insisting that charities have been struggling in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks due to increased demand for services and fewer contributions. He added that his faith-based plan, which has drawn criticism from the political right, left and center since being unveiled over a year ago, could assist charities with aid for multiple faith traditions.
"[G]overnment can write checks, but it can't put hope in people's hearts, or a sense of purpose in people's lives," Bush said. "That is done by people who have heard a call and who act on faith and are willing to share that faith. And I'm not talking about a particular religion; I'm talking about all religions under the Almighty God. And we should not fear those kind of programs."
Bush reiterated his insistence that religious groups that get federal aid should be able to maintain their religious character.
"The federal government," he said, "should not discriminate against faith. There must be a level playing field available. When we have federal monies, people should be allowed to access that money without having to lose their mission or change their mission. We need to know that in our society, faith can move people in ways that government can't."
Bush argued that addiction, prison rehabilitation, children's services and anti-crime programs operated by religious groups may be more effective than other programs. (Scholars say current studies do not confirm this assertion.)
Bush praised the House for passing H.R. 7, a "good piece of legislation," and urged the Senate to take action on a faith-based bill.
In February, Bush announced he had reached an agreement with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) on a revamped faith-based scheme that emphasizes tax incentives for greater donations to charities. Lieberman and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have introduced the so-called "CARE Act of 2002" (Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment).
The measure, S. 1924, avoids the most controversial features of the president's original plan, the so-called "charitable choice" provisions that raised the ire of civil rights and civil liberties advocates. But it retains provisions allowing publicly funded faith-based groups to post unlimited amounts of icons and scriptures in their facilities.
The president used the White House event to urge prompt action on the CARE Act, concluding that the legislation would spur increased charitable donations by allowing taxpayers who do not itemize on their tax returns a chance to deduct charitable gifts.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has indicated that he will bring the bill to the floor soon and expects the legislation to pass with bipartisan support.
Republican House leaders, including Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) have expressed hesitation about the Senate compromise bill, arguing it doesn't go far enough. Watts' H.R. 7 permits publicly funded religious groups to engage in hiring discrimination on religious grounds.
No Proof 'Faith-Based' Services Are Better, New Report Indicates
Backers of "faith-based" initiatives frequently assert that religious groups provide social services more effectively and at a lower cost than public agencies. But a newly released report casts doubts on those claims.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that while faith-based programs are often successful, there is no academic proof they are more effective than secular counterparts.
The report, conducted by Byron Johnson, director of Penn's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, concluded that no empirical evidence exists showing that faith-based programs are superior to public, secular services. It reviewed 25 previous studies of faith-based effectiveness. One of those studies, conducted in 2000 by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, examined 81 social-service providers in 27 states over a period of 10 years. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, it found "that sound financial management and quality of staff were far more important than religious affiliation in predicting a program's success."
The Penn report, titled "Objective Hope: Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Review of the Literature," found that claims of very high success rates by some faith-based organizations are probably exaggerated.
"Champions of FBOs regularly cite near perfect success rates of programs for drug addicts, prisoners, at-risk youth, and other populations," the report observes. "But closer examination of these accounts of extremely high success rates tends to reveal mere simple summary statistics based on in-house data often compiled by the religious organizations and ministries themselves. What is needed, above all, is accurate and unbiased information that can serve as the basis for an enlightened public discussion."
The report also noted that there has been virtually no attempt to determine if publicly funded faith-based groups, including the Salvation Army, Lutheran Services in America (LSA), Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity and United Jewish Communities, are effective.
Johnson noted that these organizations have "identified no subsequent research documenting the extent of the effectiveness of their respective programs." He observed, "After contacting these organizations, it was disheartening to learn that both the Salvation Army, which received $275 million in government contracts in year 2000, and LSA, which received between $2 billion and $3 billion last year from the government, produced no quantitative findings on program effectiveness by which the public might hold them accountable."
Johnson concluded that while results indicated that the literature on the effectiveness of faith-based groups is "positive and encouraging," it "cannot unequivocally certify the claim that faith-based programs are more effective than their secular counterparts."
The foreword to the Penn report was written by John J. DiIulio, former chief of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
In other news about the faith-based initiative:
U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts remains hopeful that his version of President Bush's "faith-based" initiative can be resurrected. Watts, campaigning for Republican candidates in Connecticut recently, told reporters that he hopes a controversial plan passed by the House will be reconsidered.
The Watts measure, H.R. 7, sparked intense conflict because it includes direct government funding of religion and contains provisions allowing religious groups to take tax aid yet still discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. The Senate refused to consider the bill and has instead put forth a watered-down version that emphasized tax breaks to spur charitable giving.
Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), sponsor of the Senate plan, said Watts shouldn't get his hopes up.
"At this point," Gerstein told The Washington Times, "we feel the Senate bill is the viable vehicle."
Most Americans Oppose Church Electioneering, Opinion Poll Finds
A new poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe churches should not endorse candidates for public office, results that could slow down congressional efforts to allow church-based electioneering.
The survey, released March 20 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that 70 percent of respondents said churches should not endorse political candidates, while only 22 percent backed such activity. Opposition to church-based politicking cut across racial and denominational lines.
Despite the lack of support among the American people, three bills are currently pending in Congress that would rewrite federal tax law to allow houses of worship to spend church resources on political candidates.
The bill receiving the most attention is Rep. Walter Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), which has already garnered the support of 113 co-sponsors in the House. Several Religious Right leaders, including Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, have been aggressively lobbying on behalf of the legislation. Capitol Hill sources indicate the House may hold committee hearings on the bill in May. (See "Politicizing The Pulpit," April 2002 Church & State.)
A closer look at the Pew Forum's results show that church politicking was unpopular among all tested demographic groups. For example, the report indicates that white Catholics and white mainline Protestants regardless of their level of religious commitment reject church political endorsements by more than a three-to-one margin.
The highest support for churches endorsing political candidates came from self-described white evangelical Christians. But even within that group, opponents of church electioneering outnumbered supporters, 48 to 41 percent. (Black Protestants rejected candidate endorsements by a 58 to 34 margin.)
Under existing law, religious leaders have a clear legal right to use their pulpits to address moral and political issues. Tax law, however, prohibits houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates or using tax-exempt donations for partisan campaigns.
Other results from the Pew survey include:
Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe that the United States is a "Christian nation." It was unclear from the context of the question if people mean the nation is Christian in a cultural or legal sense. A solid majority, 84 percent, believes a person can be a good American even if he or she has no faith. Thirteen percent disagreed, and the rest said they don't know. However, 54 percent say they have an unfavorable opinion of atheists (34 percent say favorable). "People who are not religious" get a better approval rating, with 51 percent viewing them favorably.
Americans have little interest in seeing the government promote marriage, a frequent Religious Right crusade. Seventy-nine percent said the government should "stay out" of such activities; 18 percent favored it.
Most Americans embrace theological pluralism. Seventy-five percent agreed with the statement, "Many religions can lead to eternal life," while only 18 agreed with, "My religion is the one-true faith." (Seven percent said they don't know.)
For the full survey results, visit www.pewforum.org.
Bush Backs Embattled Catholic Hierarchy As Pedophilia Crisis Grows
Officials of the Roman Catholic Church are under fire for covering up a child sexual-abuse scandal, but don't look for President George W. Bush to add to the criticism.
Asked about the matter during a March 13 press conference at the White House, Bush expressed support for the hierarchy and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who is accused of reassigning a priest who eventually pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting more than 130 children over 30 years.
A reporter, noting the "growing crisis in the Catholic Church," asked Bush if he thought the church had acted "swiftly enough to deal with the issue of pedophilia among the ranks of priests."
Bush replied, "Well, I know many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I know them to be men of integrity and decency. They're honorable people. I was just with Cardinal Egan today. And I'm confident the church will clean up its business and do the right thing. As to the timing, I haven't, frankly I'm not exactly aware of the how fast or how not fast they're moving. I just can tell you I trust the leadership of the church."
The reporter followed up by asking Bush if Law should resign, noting that Bush knows Law personally.
"That's up to the church," Bush replied. "I know Cardinal Law to be a man of integrity. I respect him a lot."
Law, Egan and other conservative Catholic prelates tried to marshal support for Bush among the Catholic faithful during the 2000 election. The Boston prelate, for example, wrote a column in the diocesan newspaper blasting Democrat Al Gore for his "pro-abortion position" and noting that Bush has "pro-life convictions." (See "Biased Blessing," December 2000 Church & State.)
Law's help apparently didn't go unnoticed. The White House scheduled a meeting between Bush and him on Feb. 5, 2001, just a few short weeks after Bush was sworn in as president.
Bush, since then, has aggressively courted Roman Catholic leaders, aware that they can influence the potentially crucial swing vote in national elections. He has focused most of his efforts on the church hierarchy, even though many rank-and-file Catholics disagree with the bishops on many issues.
A large number of Catholics have also expressed disgust with Law's behavior during the pedophilia scandal and have clamored for his resignation. Earlier this year, documents that had been sealed under court order were released, proving that when Law and other top officials at the Boston Archdiocese learned that the Rev. John Geoghan had been accused of sexually abusing children, they reassigned him to different parishes rather than dismiss him and turn him over to the legal system.
Geoghan was convicted of child molestation and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. The Boston Archdiocese has agreed to pay $45 million to settle claims from his victims.
Law's complicity might never have come to light were it not for some aggressive reporters in Boston. Attorneys with the Boston Globe won court orders opening up records related to the case that the church had wanted to keep sealed. The Globe, following up on stories that first appeared in an alternative paper, the Boston Phoenix, eventually won access to four year's worth of sealed documents. Their contents were explosive.
Since then, a second shocking case has unfolded involving the Rev. Paul Shanley, a priest Law allegedly moved from parish to parish despite allegations of misconduct and reports that Shanley had publicly spoken on behalf of sex between men and boys.
Other newspapers are looking into allegations of similar conduct by priests and cover-ups by bishops in other cities. Several cases have been uncovered.
Several commentators have accused church leaders of duplicity and demanded Law's resignation. He has refused to step down.
A March 28 editorial in the Montreal Gazette is typical.
"If the Roman Catholic Church were serious about dealing with the sexual abuse of children by priests, Law would no longer be archbishop," it asserted. "For his complicity in allowing Geoghan to continue to molest children, he would have been forced to resign. As would Cardinal Edward Egan, leader of the New York archdiocese. When Egan was bishop of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, he did not tell the criminal justice system about abusive priests in his jurisdiction, thereby allowing them to continue in the church for years."
Continued the editorial, "In what other field would the top officials still be in place after their acceptance of criminal activity had been splashed all over the front pages of newspapers throughout the entire world? Even Enron's Kenneth Lay as obdurate a corporate leader as they come was forced to resign."
Church leaders, meanwhile, have continued to place the blame for the scandal on factors outside the church. On March 22 Pope John Paul II released a letter pledging the church's support for justice for the victims and calling the "grave scandal" a manifestation of supernatural evil.
At a Vatican news conference unveiling the letter, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos asserted, "Concerning the problem of sexual abuseand cases of pedophilia, I have only one answer. In today's culture of pansexualism and libertinism created in this world, several priests, being of this culture, have committed the most serious crime of sexual abuse."
Some survivors of abuse were not pleased with the papal missive. "What everyone has learned beyond a doubt in the last few months is that despite a decade of promises and reassurances, bishops still do in fact reassign these men and cover for them.... But there was nothing in the pope's statement about the action or inactions of bishops that could prevent future abuse," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a 3,500-member group of victims.
In other news:
U.S. ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson is working to expand the visibility of his post, the National Catholic Reporter says. Traditionally viewed as a low-energy sinecure, the job under Nicholson is being transformed. According to the paper, Nicholson, former head of the Republican National Committee, "seems on track to be the most powerful ambassador to the pope in U.S. history."
The paper said Nicholson has been able to make the slot more high profile because Bush sees official U.S.-Vatican ties as a way to secure the Catholic vote in 2004.
"No president in recent American history has taken such a strong interest in the 'Catholic vote' as Bush," said the paper. "Advisers believe that in several swing states, socially conservative Catholic voters hold the key to reelection in 2004. Hence, Bush has reached out to the American bishops, and in July 2001 he went to Castel Gandolfo to meet with the pope."
Public Housing Must Be Open To 'Faith-Based' Groups, HUD Chief Says
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has notified 3,200 public housing authorities nationwide that they must have an "open door policy" toward "faith-based" organizations that provide social services to residents.
HUD Secretary Mel Martinez issued the directive March 15. In a HUD press release, Martinez saluted the work of faith-based organizations, writing, "At a time of hardship in our cities, when government resources are already stretched to the limit, we need these guardian angels. My hope is to end the confusion and help to establish a level playing field for faith-based and community organizations that seek a partnership with the federal government."
The release noted that Martinez had ordered a complete review of all HUD programs to "identify barriers to the participation of community- and faith-based organizations. As a result, HUD is working to remove these barriers and reach out to the faith community and other grassroots organizations that are uniquely positioned to more effectively provide social services to low-income Americans."
Martinez said he acted because several local housing development agencies had restricted access to faith-based organizations. He cited a case from Sioux Falls, S.D., where St. Francis House, a Roman Catholic group, turned down $53,000 in federal money after it was told to stop prayer sessions before serving meals to the homeless and also ordered to remove religious icons from its facility. Officials in Sioux Falls had told the group that HUD regulations precluded religious activity in a tax-funded program.
On March 12, Martinez wrote to officials at the Sioux Falls Department of Community Development and told them that it is not HUD policy to require faith-based groups to stop sponsoring mealtime prayers or remove religious symbols.
"Groups such as the St. Francis House are vital partners in the mission of this Department to fight the battle against homelessness," Martinez wrote. "I am deeply concerned that this Department has been cited as the cause for adverse action against St. Francis House."
Martinez asserted that requiring a government-funded social service provider to remove religious content from its program would be a violation of the First Amendment.
Dan Katz, Americans United's Director of Legislative Affairs, told reporters Martinez's interpretation of the Constitution is wrong.
"When people go to seek social services, they should not be required or even coerced to engage in any kind of religious activity," Katz said. "Our Constitution does not allow that. It's a fundamental violation of rights."
Ironically, Martinez' new guidelines came just after the federal agency was running into trouble with a "faith-based" project in the District of Columbia.
According to The Washington Post, HUD has ended a contract with a faith-based group in Washington, D.C., that was supposed to renovate run-down houses owned by the federal government and sell them to low-income families. HUD ended its relationship with the Church Association for Community Services after learning that a for-profit firm had been brought in to oversee the renovation and sale of the properties, a practice that violated the terms of the contract.
White House Faith Czar Jim Towey has asked Catholic social service ministry leaders to support the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative. In his Feb. 27 remarks, however, Towey, who heads the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, gave the Washington gathering a mixed message about how the "partnership" between religion and government would work.
According to the Catholic News Service, Towey said, "You should not be preaching or proselytizing on the federal government's dime. But you cannot strip programs of their religious content, because that is what makes them effective.'
Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has announced his opposition to publicly funded discrimination. In testimony in April in the House, Thompson told Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), "I'm opposed to discrimination, period. If you are using federal money to discriminate, that is wrong, period."
The stance appears to conflict with the Bush administration's official line that publicly funded religious charities should be allowed to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring.
Calif. School District Accused Of Improperly Teaching About Islam
Officials at a public school district in California are being accused of going too far in lessons designed to teach about Islam and possibly lapsing into promotion of that faith.
Controversy arose at the Byron Union School District in January when reports began circulating on conservative websites that the school had required students to memorize passages from the Koran, recite Islamic prayers, adopt Muslim names and dress up as Muslims on a pilgrimage.
Superintendent Peggy Green has defended the exercises, saying they have a legitimate academic intent. Green also disputed some of the charges, saying that students did not pretend to go on a pilgrimage and that some students, for extra credit, had voluntarily agreed to put on a play dressed in Muslim garb and using Muslim names.
A press release issued by the school admitted that students wear costumes and engage in role-playing but added, "Students are not required to pray to Allah, recite verses from the Qur'an or wear Muslim clothing. At no time do we mandate students to participate we offer alternative assignments to any family who requests it."
Education guidelines issued by state officials forbid having students act out religious exercises. Americans United said that while the school may have had good intentions in wanting to teach about religion, it may have gone overboard.
In a letter to school officials, Americans United attorneys Ayesha Khan and Allison Pierce noted the importance of adhering to the law when offering objective, academic lessons on religious issues.
"While we think that teaching students about the world's religions, including Islam, is a laudable goal," AU's letter said, "it must be undertaken with sensitivity to other religions and non-religious traditions, and without any advancement or endorsement of the religious subject matter. Having students re-enact religious events, or engage in religious practices (even as 'actors') will generally cross over this line."
The AU letter concluded, "We urge you to review your curricula on Islam, and other religions, to ensure compliance with constitutional principles."
The controversy over the Islamic lessons at the schools quickly become a rallying point for several Religious Right groups, many of whom have expressed indignation over the inclusion of Islamic teachings in a public school classroom. TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, for example, has called the activities an "outrage" and a "gross violation" of the law.
Americans United said it was ironic that the Religious Right would condemn religious lessons in a public school.
"I completely agree that these lessons appear to be unconstitutional, but I always thought Religious Right leaders wanted more religion in schools, not less," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "I guess this demonstrates that when Religious Right leaders argue for more religion in the classroom, what they really want is their version of Christianity."
N.C. Church Fund-Raiser For Candidate Sparks AU Complaint To IRS
A Raleigh, N.C., church held a fund-raiser for an incumbent sheriff seeking reelection March 24, leading Americans United to send an official complaint to the Internal Revenue Service.
Mount Peace Baptist Church announced the event in a March 4 mailing to the community. The letter, on church stationery signed by Pastor J. Vincent Terry Sr., invited people to "an appreciation program" for Sheriff John H. Baker, Jr. and stated, "Please help us to continue our support of Sheriff Baker in his re-election efforts."
Elsewhere the letter said, "All proceeds will be contributed to the Committee to re-elect Sheriff John H. Baker, Jr." The congregation also promoted the event on its website, noting that the church choir would "lead in worship through song for John Baker Day."
After the Raleigh News & Observer contacted the church to ask about the event, Terry insisted it would be above board. The pastor said there would be no collection for Baker but added, "If they are led to give after the service, they can."
An earlier News & Observer story had noted that Baker, a Democrat who has been sheriff of Wake County since 1978, has close ties to several churches in the area and has in the past collected money for his campaigns in those churches. Baker insists that the practice is legal and is part of his religious freedom rights.
AU disagrees. On March 25, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate the church's activities on behalf of Baker.
"Church sponsorship of a candidate fund-raising event would seem to be a clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns, issuing statements in favor of candidates and raising money for candidates," wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, to Steven T. Miller, director of the agency's Exempt Organizations Division.
AU Warns Pa. School To Halt Bible Handouts
Americans United has warned a public school district in central Pennsylvania to stop allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles to students.
Jay Nixon, a public school guidance counselor, contacted the organization in late March after his son came home from school with a New Testament. Nixon's son told him that the principal had summoned all the fifth and sixth graders into the auditorium for an assembly, where they were given New Testaments by a local insurance agent who is active in the Gideons, an evangelical Christian organization that distributes Bibles to the public.
Nixon, a member of the Americans United National Advisory Council, called Superintendent Roy Antolick of the Millville Area School District the next day. Antolick confirmed that the Gideons had distributed Bibles in the school, said it happens annually and stated that he did not believe it was a violation of the law.
On March 25, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and Attorney Fellow Allison Pierce sent a letter to Antolick to inform him of the law concerning Bible distribution in public schools.
"We are writing to advise you that permitting the distribution of Bibles on school property is grossly unconstitutional," the AU staffers observed, "and to ask that you refrain from allowing such distributions in the future."