Americans United for Separation of Church and State has criticized President-elect George W. Bush's upcoming meeting with black clergy to discuss taxpayer funding of "faith-based" social service programs, saying the meeting looks like an effort to bribe church leaders.
"Bush apparently believes he can buy support in the religious community by offering to eviscerate the First Amendment through tax funding of religion," noted Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This has all the trappings of political bribery. The president-elect is going to learn that America's religious community is not for sale."
The Washington Post reported today that the meeting with black clergy will take place in Austin on Wednesday. The move was widely interpreted as an effort by Bush to shore up support among a constituency that voted heavily against him on Election Day.
Lynn said Bush's efforts come at the expense of the First Amendment. He asserted that Bush's much-touted "compassionate conservatism" is merely a code phrase for forcing taxpayers to support religious ministries that offer social services. Bush has stated repeatedly that he believes churches should be able to get tax funding for these programs without watering down the sectarian nature of their projects.
Bush's gambit, Lynn asserted, is of dubious constitutionality. "Bush is proposing an unprecedented program of government funding of religion, involving literally billions in taxpayer dollars," he said. "His plan for the social services would essentially merge church and state into a single bureaucracy that would dispense religion alongside government aid."
Lynn noted that Bush plans to establish an "office of faith-based action," a branch of his administration equivalent to a cabinet-level post, which will coordinate the effort to distribute tax money to churches and other houses of worship.
Continued Lynn. "Under this scheme, church soup kitchens would be free to coerce needy people to pray before helping them. Fundamentalist groups could refuse to hire Jews, Roman Catholics and atheists and still get a windfall in taxpayer money. There is simply no way to reconcile taxpayer-supported religion with the First Amendment. One or the other must give."
Lynn also noted that the Bush proposal is politically unwise. A key component of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" calls for government-funded religious school vouchers, yet African American voters in Michigan and California joined all voters in those states in rejecting vouchers by wide margins in ballot referenda last month.
Furthermore, exit polls conducted during the election show that Americans of all races and income levels favor fixing troubled public schools over vouchers by a margin of nearly 5 to 1.
Concluded Lynn, "It is alarming to me that one of the president-elect's first official actions is an assault on the First Amendment. This is a clear sign that the wall of separation between church and state is due to undergo sustained attack from the White House over the next four years."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.