September 2001 Church & State | Featured

As a floor vote on President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative" was nearing in the House of Representatives, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the lead sponsor and cheerleader for the plan, worked tirelessly to promote his legislation.

At one of a series of press conferences House Republicans held in July, Watts was asked directly about the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7) and its effect on church-state separation.

"The legislation isn't about the church, it isn't about the state," Watts said. "The legislation is about...the people who are in the trenches every day answering the call of making the community better."

Though Watts is chairman of the House Republican Conference, his message apparently did not reach the Majority Whip's office.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the third ranking Republican in the House, not only believes the faith-based initiative is about church and state, but also that it is a tool that he hopes will be used to "rebuke" church-state separation.

At an invitation-only Capitol Hill luncheon organized by TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship, DeLay let his guard down long enough to speak his mind on the president's faith-based plan without the sugarcoating of White House talking points.

Speaking to congressional staff and Religious Right activists July 10, he said, "I see [the initiative] as a great opportunity to bring God back into the public institutions of the country. God has been removed from all of our public institutions."

DeLay then added that the initiative would be a way of "standing up and rebuking this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last 40 or 50 years. You see, I don't believe there is a separation of church and state."

He even took a swipe at existing social services, charging that secular programs have failed because they do not recognize "that man is sinful and the redemption of man is through Jesus Christ, or if you're Jewish through practicing your religion."

The stark inconsistencies between Watts' innocuous claims about the bill versus DeLay's contention that the measure will be used as a sledgehammer against the church-state wall demonstrate the consistent disorder and dissembling surrounding the faith-based initiative.

Since its introduction by Bush in January, religious, civil liberties, civil rights, educational and social service leaders have spoken out against the proposal's flaws. Ultimately, their concerns were overlooked by a majority of the House, who, after intense lobbying from the White House, ignored the plan's failings and passed the bill 233-198 in a cloud of confusion and controversy.

The road to House passage was a long and strange one. H.R. 7 was introduced by Watts and Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) in March, but garnered little enthusiasm from lawmakers in either party. Despite fervent backing from the White House, the measure, as late as June, had only 21 co-sponsors.

After a series of hearings, the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee was expected to consider and easily pass H.R. 7. Yet, like every step the bill had taken since its unveiling, critical concerns were raised about the proposal that nearly killed it.

In mid-June, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, postponed passage "until further notice" because of worries over provisions that he believed could adversely affect participating religious groups.

Vice President Dick Cheney called Sensenbrenner to urge him to move the bill.

"I told [Cheney] there were legal problems involved and I didn't think the administration had done its homework in broadening its base so that it had broad bipartisan support," Sensenbrennertold the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's basically up to the administration to get it together if they want it passed."

The White House apparently took his remarks quite seriously.

According to a report in The Washington Post, almost immediately after his comments were published, Sensenbrenner got phone calls from Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Theodore Olson, all of whom attempted to convince the committee chairman that his concerns were being addressed.

Bush dispatched White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card on June 26 to meet directly with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), DeLay, Sensenbrenner and Watts to make revisions to the bill.

Watts later described the changes as "ironing the wrinkles out" of the measure.

After reviewing some of the changes, however, opponents concluded the bill was actually worse than before.

"These so-called improvements are more spin than substance," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "When it comes to the faith-based issue, the president seems more concerned with rhetoric than reality."

Lynn noted that the most dramatic alteration made to the legislation was the addition of language that would allow publicly funded religious groups to proselytize beneficiaries. According to the revised bill, when religious groups receive government funding in the form of a voucher, certificate or other forms of "indirect" aid, the person receiving the aid can be subjected to unwelcome religious coercion, including proselytizing, mandatory attendance at religious services and compulsory scriptural readings.

Another important change made by the White House and Republican leaders was the removal of language that offered a "non-religious alternative" for beneficiaries. In its place, the bill said individuals who objected to the "religious character" of a service provider would be directed to another group that is "unobjectionable" to the person seeking assistance perhaps another religious organization.

Other changes to H.R. 7 also drew fire from religious and political conservatives.

To address constitutional concerns, the bill was revised in committee to require participating religious groups to keep religious exercises voluntary and separate from publicly funded social services. While church-state separationists questioned whether the regulation could be adequately enforced, the provision was lambasted by right-wing activists for the opposite reason.

Marvin Olasky, an evangelical strategist who helped advise Bush on the faith-based issue during the 2000 campaign, criticized the administration for bowing to "liberal pressure" and ignoring the way "numerous evangelical groups incorporate biblical teaching into all of their instructional and counseling programs."

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said the new language means evangelical groups such as Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship Ministries could be excluded from funding because of their religious character.

"The very groups George Bush most talked about in pressing the initiative can now not receive a nickel from the program," Horowitz told the Post.

Sensenbrenner, however, was apparently satisfied that his concerns had been dealt with and scheduled a committee mark-up. The debate spanned nearly nine hours on June 29, but the bill passed on a party-line vote.

Controversial congressional changes to the initiative were just getting started.

The faith-based initiative has always had two main components. The best known feature is the proposed expansion of "charitable choice" that would permit greater public funding of religious groups.

The other feature of the plan includes efforts to encourage more donations to charitable organizations. Part of this facet of the proposal was to amend tax law to permit non-itemizers to deduct charitable donations from their taxes. Budget estimates suggested that the change would deliver tens of billions of dollars to the philanthropic community over the next decade.

However, as the House Ways and Means Committee was prepared to address this provision of the initiative, supporters of the plan ran into a snag: they could no longer afford the charitable proposal because the funds had been used for the Bush tax cut package passed in the spring. As a result, the cost of the charitable deduction scheme was cut from $84 billion to just $6.4 billion over the next 10 years. The deduction was capped at only $25 per person. As a result, tax savings per person would run only $3.75 next year, at the maximum.

Charity executives even those who have offered backing for the Bush plan were unimpressed. "We support it in principle, but the amount is so small it's almost funny," Sharon Daly, of Catholic Charities, told The Washington Post.

The White House realized that these committee victories, where Republicans hold a sizable advantage, were far easier than success on the House floor. With that in mind, it was time to turn up the heat. The pressure was swift, intense and sometimes surreptitious.

Before the July 4 recess, for example, several House members grew suspicious when White House interns began making calls to the Hill requesting information about local town hall meetings representatives were planning for their districts. After some investigation, congressional offices learned the calls were originating from Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which apparently intended to direct GOP activists to attend meetings and pressure representatives who disapproved of the plan.

Several offices were incensed by what they saw as a cheap ploy.

Jeremy Rabinovitz, chief of staff to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), told Roll Call. "It's a crude tactic usually used by fringe groups."

The uproar from House Democrats didn't slow the administration down at all. Following the recess, the Bush crusade continued unabated.

At a July 9 ceremony at the White House's Rose Garden to welcome members of America's Promise, a national volunteer organization, Bush said, "There is no more important initiative than the faith-based program that I've submitted to the United States Congress."

Three days later, in his first lobbying trip to Capitol Hill, Bush again reminded House Republicans how much this bill means to him.

In a report published by World, an evangelical magazine, Bush's visit featured an emotional chief executive imploring his fellow Republicans to put aside their doubts and vote for his plan to fund faith.

"I saw it work its magic in places where hope had been lost," Bush reportedly said in a basement conference room. According to one legislator's account, the president stressed that the initiative "is so important to me that I want you to overlook some of the details and get it done."

Bush's efforts were successful and his audience left impressed.

"He was very passionate, obviously committed to this," Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) told World. "He said, 'This [religious approach] might not work for everybody, but it worked for me.' You could see he was tearing up. He was saying, 'give us a chance,' and when he was ready to leave, I hope everybody was willing to say, 'give him a chance.'"

(When Bush told the GOP caucus that "it worked for me," he was apparently referring to his "born-again" religious conversion, which he credits with helping him give up alcohol.)

Ironically, as the president was shoring up political support for his initiative in Congress with aggressive arm-twisting, Bush neglected, and eventually alienated, some of the meager backing he had put together outside of Capitol Hill.

The Bush administration has heavily courted African-American clergy, suggesting that the faith-based initiative could be a windfall for troubled inner-city communities. As the proposal changed, however, so did its already scant support from black clergy.

Observers noted that Bush dropped a planned $700 million "Compassion Capital Fund" altogether, preferring instead to dedicate those resources for his tax cut plan. This development, coupled with the severe cuts in tax incentives for charitable donations and budget cuts for several popular social programs, produced feelings of disillusionment and betrayal among some black clergy.

Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, senior pastor of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, Fla., for example, played an instrumental role in rallying support for the Bush faith-based initiative. After the changes, even he was disgruntled.

"There is an open conflict between what's being said and what's being done [by the White House]," Ray told American Prospect.

"The problem is that a lot of the president's initiative was clearly going to be tied to the $14 or $15 billion the charitable deduction would have raised," Ray told the magazine. "That was the 'new money.'"

Ray wasn't the only minister raising concerns about the Bush plan.

At a Capitol Hill press conference July 17, Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) joined a plethora of religious leaders from across the theological spectrum to denounce the initiative, including the Rev. Eliezer Valentin- Casta\xf1\xf3n, from the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society, Bush's own denomination.

AU's Lynn, also among the participants, said the proposal would do lasting damage to the First Amendment. "The faith-based initiative is in irreparable conflict with the First Amendment's separation of church and state," Lynn said.

Lynn was particularly critical of the bill's provision allowing publicly funded religious discrimination. He noted that churches could get broad taxpayer subsidies through the initiative and still reject job applicants who adhere to the "wrong" religion or otherwise fail to comply with church dogma.

Despite these concerns, proponents nevertheless staved off talk of delays and decided to proceed to the floor for a vote by the full House. With pressure from the White House and control of the chamber in the hands of Republicans, supporters of the initiative knew that if they could keep the GOP caucus together, they could pass the bill. Keeping Republicans united, however, turned out to be more difficult than originally planned.

On the evening of July 17, just a half-day before the scheduled vote on H.R. 7, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) raised objections to provisions of the bill that would override state and local laws barring discrimination in hiring. The lawmaker took his concerns to the House Rules Committee so the bill could be changed on the floor, but instead, Republican leaders rejected Foley's amendment and said it would not be considered.

The decision to rebuff Foley's concerns touched off a near-revolt of several moderate House Republicans who threatened to vote with Democrats against the legislation. Rather than face the humiliation of a floor defeat, House leaders announced that they were delaying consideration of the bill.

White House officials, meanwhile, launched a no-holds-barred lobbying blitz to keep Republicans united on the bill. Once they were confident they had quelled the moderates' revolt, the House leadership announced a floor vote for July 19, a day later than they had anticipated.

The floor debate was heated. Champions of church-state separation and civil rights stood up repeatedly to denounce a plan they viewed as fatally flawed.

"Sending billions of tax dollars each year directly to churches is unconstitutional under the First Amendment," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). "It will lead to government regulation of our churches, which is exactly why our Founding Fathers rejected the idea of using tax dollars to fund our churches when they wrote the Bill of Rights."

Edwards wasn't alone. An array of House members cited problems with the Bush plan. Among them was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.

"I have spent more than 40 years of my life fighting against discrimination," Lewis said. "We have worked too long and too hard, and we cannot sit back and watch the work of so many people who sacrificed so much be undone by this bill. We have come too far in this country to go back now....The wall between church and state must be solid. It must be strong. It has guided us for more than 200 years. It must not be breached for any reason."

As part of a Bush compromise with the moderate Republicans who were prepared to reject parts of the proposal, the floor debate also featured a "colloquy" between Watts and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The discussion entered into the record a Watts acknowledgement of worries about the bill's discrimination provisions and his promise to work on the issue after Senate consideration of the bill.

The GOP moderates were apparently placated by the exchange, even though there was no commitment to remedy the problem. Foley and others made no effort to scuttle any provisions of the bill the day of the vote. Without significant help from Republican moderates, critics stood no chance of defeating the bill.

After two procedural efforts proposed by Democrats were defeated, the House approved H.R. 7. The vote was largely along party lines. Only 15 Democrats supported the bill Reps. Bob Clement (Tenn.), Gary Condit (Calif.), Robert Cramer (Ala.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Tony Hall (Ohio), John LaFalce (N.Y.), William Lipinski (Ill.), Ken Lucas (Ky.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), David Phelps (Ill.), Ronnie Shows (Miss.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and James Traficant (Ohio). Four Republicans voted against it Reps. Donald Manzullo (Ill), Constance Morella (Md.), Ron Paul (Texas) and Bob Stump (Ariz.).

Before it can reach the president's desk, the faith-based initiative will have to pass the Senate, where its future is unclear.

On July 22, just three days after the House passed H.R. 7, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) announced he would draft his own version of the legislation, which he believes will garner more support than the Bush plan.

The day after the House vote, Lieberman told The New York Times he would meet with Bush and hopes to build bipartisan support for his own faith-based bill.

"I remain committed to the goal that we should find a way to more widely engage faith-based institutions that carry out these social service programs," Lieberman said. "I look forward to working with the president and going forward."

Lieberman isn't the only Senate Democrat to indicate a willingness to support faith-based efforts. In late July, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), the Senate's most conservative Democrat, sent his colleagues a letter urging them to support the Bush initiative, insisting, "We cannot wait."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also suggested that the Senate will proceed in considering this issue, but has warned initiative supporters that he has serious reservations about the plan as it currently exists.

"Rolling back the mandates and the guidelines that we have with regard to tolerance in this country is unacceptable," Daschle said at a press conference on July 20.

AU's Lynn said his group, which has spearheaded opposition to the initiative, will be working hard to make sure senators are educated about the church-state implications of the bill.