The White House announced today that President George W. Bush will unveil plans for a major "faith-based" social service initiative next week.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national church-state watchdog group and a leading critic of the Bush proposal, described the new initiative as a misguided and dangerous approach to public policy. The scheme will reportedly include a new office in the White House to promote government aid to church-run social services.
"People shouldn't have to go to a church they may not believe in to get help from the government," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Placing people in need in this kind of position is just plain wrong. This is a radical assault on the American tradition of church-state separation.
"The Constitution created a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy designed to unite the two," added Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and an attorney. "The very existence of a federal office whose principal purpose is to give tax dollars to religious groups is in irreparable conflict with the First Amendment."
According to materials distributed during the campaign, Bush wants to distribute federal tax dollars to religious groups to provide a plethora of social services now being provided by government agencies or secular groups. These services would include after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation programs and abstinence programs.
Critics say these kinds of faith-based initiatives are burdened with many serious flaws. Among the most serious is a provision that would allow federally funded employment discrimination on religious grounds. A religious group, for example, will be able to receive public tax dollars to pay for a job, but still be free to hang up a sign that says "Jews Need Not Apply."
"Just imagine: your money pays for a job that you can't have because of your religious beliefs," Lynn observed. "That's not compassionate conservatism, that's blatant bigotry."
Critics also charge that the Bush plan will jeopardize the independence and integrity of church-run social service programs.
"What the government funds, it always regulates," said Lynn. "Once churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are being financed by the public, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow."
Bush's faith-based initiative is part of a broader effort to expand so-called "charitable choice" funding, which originated with former-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept changed existing law to permit public funding of "pervasively sectarian" groups where religion permeates every aspect of the institution.
Faith-based initiatives were a center point of Bush's presidential campaign. As Bush describes it, this program will be part of a broader mobilization effort of what Bush has called his "armies of compassion."
Bush has explained that the office, once in place, will remove barriers that prevent additional funding of religious groups, coordinate federal funding from multiple government agencies and encourage states to establish their own offices of faith-based action to facilitate state funds going to religious groups.
"In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," Bush said on July 22, 1999.
"There's nothing compassionate about Bush's legally dubious scheme," concluded Lynn. "Contributions to religious groups must come from supporters voluntarily, not be forced by the government. Bush's faith-based initiative is a constitutional nightmare and a disastrous step in the wrong direction."
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.