In little-noticed testimony likely to spark intense controversy, the Bush administration has told Congress that "faith-based" groups cannot include religious activity in their programs if they are publicly funded.
Carl Esbeck, a Justice Department attorney representing the White House, testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution June 7. During that hearing, Esbeck was asked if religious organizations would be allowed to take money under the "faith-based initiative" and still sponsor religious activity. Esbeck said, "No."
The Esbeck statement is a major departure from the Bush administration's past stance and would rule out government aid for favorite Bush programs (such as Teen Challenge and Charles Colson's "Inner Change") that make religion a core component of their activities.
"The Bush administration is either in full retreat or complete disarray," said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "In the past, the president and his allies have insisted that religious groups get funding without sacrificing their religious character. Now Bush's people seem to be saying religious groups must drop all religious activity if they get public funds. Which is it?
"I wonder if Chuck Colson and other ardent supporters of the faith-based initiative will change their minds when they discover their programs won't get funding through the Bush plan," Lynn added. "Already, many religious leaders from the left, right and center have rejected this scheme. If Esbeck's testimony accurately reflects Bush's position, I suspect Colson and others will be joining the opposition."
The record of the recent House hearing shows the following exchange between Esbeck and Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.):
Scott: Can you, under present charitable choice law or under the amendment in a drug-counseling program, proselytize, worship...?
Esbeck: Or do Bible teaching? No.
Scott: During the program?
Esbeck: Not during the government funded program.
Later, the following exchange occurred:
Scott: Under the current charitable choice law, can you or can you not be subjected, voluntarily, to sectarian worship during the program?
Esbeck: Within the government funded program you should not be subjected to worship.
Scott: And if there is a two-hour block of time during which the government-funded drug-counseling program is going on, there shall be no sectarian worship or proselytization or advancement of religion during that two-hour period. Is that what you are saying?
Esbeck: During the government-funded program there should not be worship or sectarian activity or proselytizing.
Later Esbeck added that under the "faith-based initiative," religious groups could "remain pervasively sectarian but then have a separate government-funded program where you follow the rules."
During the presidential campaign, Bush frequently told religious leaders that under his initiative, government funds would be available to religious organizations without requiring them to cease or water down their religious activities. The money, Bush said, would be available on "your terms, not ours."
On June 5 -- two days before the House hearing -- Bush again suggested his initiative would open the door to the funding of religion. During remarks made in Tampa June 5 as he worked on building a house for Habitat for Humanity, Bush said, "Oh, there are some in our society who are skeptical about funding faith," Bush said. "I hear it all the time in the halls of Congress: 'We can't fund faith-based organizations.'"
Said AU's Lynn, "The Bush administration is changing its story from week to week and indeed day to day. This is a strong sign that the 'faith-based initiative' is unworkable and ought to be abandoned."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 70,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.