Traveling aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush Jan. 15, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan interrupted a reporters' briefing to introduce a special guest: "Faith Czar" Jim Towey had something to tell the media.
Towey reminded reporters that Bush in 2002 ordered five cabinet-level federal agencies to take religious groups into account when distributing taxpayer-funded contracts. Towey was pleased to announce that the last agency, the Justice Department, had completed the process. The result was that "faith-based" organizations would have new access to tax funds to the tune of a whopping $40 billion.
An announcement concerning such a huge sum of public funds might have been expected to grab a few headlines, but Towey's announcement caused barely a ripple in the media. Reporters, focused on November's presidential election and the ongoing controversy over intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war, gave Towey's declaration little ink.
Later that morning, Air Force One touched down in New Orleans, where Bush traveled to Union Bethel AME Church to plug his "faith-based" initiative. Bush insisted that the plan will not amount to taxpayer-funded religion, but a moment later praised the work of Darren and Tonja Myles, a Baton Rogue couple who run a "faith-based" drug and alcohol recovery program through Healing Place Church, a Baton Rouge mega-church with nearly 4,000 members.
The duo's approach, called "Set Free Indeed," isn't just "faith-based," it's explicitly fundamentalist Christian, a fact the church's website makes crystal clear.
"We believe that recovery begins at the Cross," the Myleses state on the website. "We rely solely on the foundation of the Word of God to break the bands of addiction. We believe that only through practicing the Word and practical living skills can the person struggling with addiction reestablish his or her lives. Once a person admits that they have a problem and recognizes that only God can set them free, the rebuilding process can begin."
Bush has frequently lauded "Set Free Indeed" as the type of activity he wants to fund through his "faith-based" initiative and even singled out Tonja Myles by name during his 2003 State of the Union address. He met with her again during the recent Louisiana visit.
Myles' connections have paid off handsomely. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the organization she and her husband run has been awarded $1.2 million in federal funds, which it is supposed to pass on to similar "faith-based" organizations.
More than three years after Bush first unveiled his "faith-based" initiative, Congress has failed to pass the main piece of legislation that codifies most features of the approach. But, as Tonja Myles can testify, that hasn't shut off the flow of taxpayer funding. Undaunted, Bush is moving ahead on other fronts, determined to secure government funding of religious agencies through executive orders and other means.
Despite denials by Towey and Bush, critics say the president's approach fails to protect taxpayers from government-funded religion and proselytism. They note that Bush constantly lauds groups like Myles' recovery program, which states upfront that participation in religious activity is a requirement.
Critics also assert that, short of intrusive and constant government monitoring, there is no practical way for the state to ensure that tax funds do not pay for proselytism or sectarian activities at "faith-based" organizations. They say ample evidence of Bush's desire to fund sectarian activities can be found in his speeches.
In New Orleans, for example, Bush insisted that "faith-based" groups get results because they are religious, remarking, "We ought to say, we want results, we welcome results, and we're willing to fund programs that are capable of delivering results. We want to fund programs that save Americans, one soul at a time."
Brandishing a Bible, Bush blasted efforts by the government to require "faith-based" groups to water-down their religiosity as a condition of receiving federal aid, declaring, "Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith. It's important for our government to understand that."
"This is a massive shell game," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The administration insists no public funds will be spent on religion, then turns those funds over to groups that openly brag about how much religion they have in their programs. The level of duplicity is staggering."
If Bush has his way, a lot more "faith-based" funding is in store for America. During his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, Bush called for allocating $300 million for "faith-based" groups to help ex-prison inmates re-enter society. But that's a mere pittance compared to the scope of Bush's entire "faith-based" vision. He wants a taxpayer-funded religious component to virtually every social service program offered by government.
Most recently, Bush has also proposed $1.5 billion for so-called "marriage initiatives," many of which, it is expected, will be run by houses of worship. He has also called on Congress to double funding for "abstinence-based" sex education programs in public schools, even though many of these programs reflect sectarian dogma by omitting all information about birth control and condom use.
Through the so-called "Compassion Capital Fund," a type of White House slush fund for doling out taxpayer money to religious groups, the Bush administration quietly diverts millions to sectarian organizations every year. According to research by Americans United's Legislative Department, the most recent round of awards shows 60 grants totaling $8.1 million all distributed to Christian organizations.
Bush has also stepped up his demands that Congress pass a legislative measure advancing the "faith-based" initiative. Perhaps mindful that a future president can obliterate his executive orders with the stroke of a pen, Bush wants his approach to "faith-based" funding codified into federal law for years to come and is expected to soon begin pushing for such an act.
Why is the "faith-based" initiative suddenly all the rage again? Political observers say the new Bush push serves several purposes. For starters, it serves as a possible distraction for the media and the public at a time when the administration is facing uncomfortable questions about intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war. It also gives Bush a significant domestic policy initiative to push during an election year.
The renewed push also gives Bush an entr\xe9e into the African-American community, a segment of the population that remains largely unsupportive of the president. During his speech at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Orleans, a black congregation near a public-housing complex, Bush promoted the "faith-based" initiative and the idea of government funding of religiously tinged social services in a hard-hit area. Bush political strategists have talked openly about using the initiative to woo black support, aware that drawing even a few percentage points of the African-American vote away from the Democrats could make a difference in a tight election.
In addition, highlighting the "faith-based" initiative could deliver political payoffs to the GOP in other ways. Prior to the 2002 mid-term elections, Bush, Towey and other administration officials appeared at rallies in several churches in congressional districts and states with close House and Senate races. At these events, the promise of "faith-based" funding was used as a get-out-the-vote motivator.
As in 2002, GOP promotion of the "faith-based" initiative this year is expected to give Bush an opportunity to shore up voters in swing states who may be wary of some of the president's economic policies.
West Virginia is a good example. Bush carried the state narrowly in 2000, but it normally leans Democratic, and many political leaders there are angry over Bush policies they say have harmed the state's economy. To keep the state in the GOP column this year, Bush strategists hope to tap into the Mountain State's tradition of social conservatism and promoting the "faith-based" initiative is key to that.
In February, Towey traveled to the state capital, Charleston, where he spoke at a legislative prayer breakfast and plugged religion as a solution to social problems.
"If you don't address why the homeless addict sticks a needle in his arm, why the mother is choosing bad boyfriends, if you don't get at the root of the problem, you can't solve it," Towey told the Charleston Daily Mail in advance of the speech.
During the speech, Towey bashed the wall of separation, charging, "We look at our country and our culture and we get the sense that maybe we've forgotten God. We can have all the Britney Spears posters we want, all the indecent programming on television, but if at Christmastime there's a manger in the public square with a baby Jesus, it's time to sue." He was joined at the event by U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose reelection Towey helped shore up in 2002 by distributing $285,000 in tax money to a Baptist church in her district that runs a job training program.
Meanwhile, politicians at the state and local level are clearly getting the message that if they want access to federal support, they had better get on board with the "faith-based" initiative.
In February, the U.S. Conference of Mayors opened a Mayors Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, a step lauded by both Bush and Towey.
The mayors' group says 180 mayors around the country have also established "faith-based" offices. The new center will work with these liaisons in an effort to better coordinate the flow of federal money to religious organizations at the local level.
"The majority of federal funding in social service programs is administered at the state and local level," Towey told Religion News Service. "So if you aren't in good communication with these leaders, the faith-based initiative will never reach its fullest potential."
What does this approach look like at the local level? How would the "faith-based" initiative change America? Answers to these questions can be found in Florida, where President Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, has aggressively sought to implement his own version of the "faith-based" initiative.
Jeb Bush promised to lead a "moral and spiritual awakening" in the state during his inauguration in 1999. Under his guidance, hundreds of state employees who oversee welfare programs are being trained in a controversial program called "Character First," developed by Bill Gothard, a controversial evangelical Christian activist.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Gothard's program teaches "the importance of meekness, deference and obedience" at least as Gothard interprets them.
Jeb Bush also diverts state money to train "faith-based" groups in how to shore up troubled marriages, rehabilitate prison inmates and handle children in foster care. A state employee now traverses Florida full time, urging religious groups to apply for tax aid.
Despite claims that the government will not play favorites, the reality in Florida is that most of the money has ended up in the hands of the conservative Christian groups that support Bush, a conservative convert to Roman Catholicism.
Even the state's new and much-vaunted "faith-based" prison is de facto Christian. While a handful of Muslims and Jews are in the facility, the Orlando Sentinel reported recently that 94.5 percent of the inmates at Lawtey Correctional Institute who listed a preference say they are Christian, and the prison has an "overwhelming Christian Protestant emphasis." One inmate told the newspaper he had to move to a different section of the prison after he refused to take part in Christian devotional services.
In addition, more than 26,000 Floridians on probation are being supervised by the Salvation Army, a fundamentalist Christian religious denomination that has contracted with several counties.
All of this led the Sun-Sentinel to conclude recently, "Jeb Bush is bringing down the wall between church and state."
If the Bush brothers have their way, the Florida experiment will be a model for the nation. President Bush, backed by congressional allies, has tried to add a "faith-based" component to nearly every piece of social-service legislation that has come up since his inauguration.
Bush even wants to add a dollop of religious employment discrimination to Head Start, a popular and effective program for low-income youngsters. Although sometimes physically sited in houses of worship, Head Start has traditionally been a non-sectarian program that hires educational aides strictly on their backgrounds and willingness to work with children and their families.
Backed by religious groups that oppose church-state separation and their friends in the House of Representatives, Bush has insisted that religious groups that sponsor Head Start programs should have the right to restrict hiring to church members. Educators and Head Start advocates have protested, asserting that such publicly funded religious discrimination is unnecessary and even offensive in a taxpayer-supported program that was never designed to be religious in nature that is aimed at a vulnerable segment of society children in low- income families.
Advocates of church-state separation are alarmed, noting that the House of Representatives seems more than willing to go along with such taxpayer-funded job bias.
In early February, the House debated legislation called the Community Services Block Grant Improvement Act (H.R. 3030), which is designed to streamline federal funding of various community-based programs, including anti-poverty efforts.
House Democrats, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, attempted to amend the bill to remove provisions giving religious groups the right to accept tax aid yet still discriminate when hiring staff; they were defeated on a 232-183 vote.
The "right-to-discriminate" provision was originally conceived by then-Sen. John Ashcroft, now U.S. attorney general, in 1998 and inserted into the Community Services bill with little notice during a reauthorization vote. President Bill Clinton strongly opposed the provision but signed the bill anyway, asserting that communities needed the money.
Right-wing groups now hope to build on Ashcroft's action and establish the right to discriminate on religious grounds with tax money as general government policy in all social service programs. Prior to the vote this year, Religious Right organizations bombarded their supporters with e-mails, demanding that they turn up the pressure on House members. One bulletin, sent by Focus on the Family, insisted that if the Woolsey amendment passed "Christian charities interested in accepting federal funds would be required to ignore religious conviction in hiring even if potential employees practiced Islam, Judaism or no religion at all."
Bush also decided to play hardball. Just before the vote, the White House issued a message stating that if the bill passed with the Woolsey amendment intact, it would be vetoed an act that would have denied funding to those in need all over the nation.
Despite the mean-spirited threat, House supporters of church-state separation made their best arguments.
"The fundamental question is, should an American citizen be discriminated against for a tax-funded job simply because he or she is exercising their deeply felt personal religious faith?" asked Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). "In my opinion, that kind of subsidized federal bigotry based on religious faith is a prescription for disaster in this country."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) lauded the bill's goal of easing poverty but added, "I cannot support this bill because this bill contains a poison pill. I will not support government-sponsored religious discrimination. And we can dress it all up and we can talk all around the point, but the fact of the matter is that what this legislation does is allow faith-based organizations to make discriminatory hiring decisions with the funds from the Community Services Block Grant."
But the White House's allies were not dissuaded. U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) all but conceded that the bill could end up subsidizing church employees with taxpayer funds.
"[M]any faith-based organizations have employees with multiple responsibilities," said Osborne. "So the music director at a church may also run the Head Start program. A youth pastor may run the food pantry. If you have multiple responsibilities, you obviously have to have people in place who understand the mission of that particular church or organization, and you cannot say, well, we need to have somebody who is socially acceptable and politically correct, but is actually the antithesis of what that particular organization wants to hire. You cannot do that."
Prior to the vote, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce issued a statement urging members to reject the Woolsey amendment. The statement listed organizations that support the right of religious groups to accept public funding yet discriminate on a religious basis.
Groups listed included Agudath Israel of America, Catholic Charities, the Christian Legal Society, Evangelicals for Social Action, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Heritage Foundation, the National Association of Evangelicals, Prison Fellowship, the Salvation Army, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Vision.
On the other side, a coalition of organizations that defend church-state separation and civil rights sent letters to Congress urging members to pass the Woolsey amendment. Groups included Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Humanist Association, the American Association of University Women, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Head Start Association, the National Education Association and the NAACP.
Religious groups that supported the amendment include the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers); the National Council of Jewish Women; the Interfaith Alliance; the Unitarian Universalist Association; Women of Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries.
The defeat of the Woolsey amendment does not signal the end of the debate. The measure passed the Senate on a voice vote Feb. 12, but language was added there forbidding religious discrimination with public funds. The bill will now go to a conference committee and its future is uncertain.
The question of government-funded religious discrimination is also expected to resurface in the House, when legislation dealing with Head Start and job training measures are taken up later this year.
The issue is also reverberating locally. Perhaps emboldened by the Bush administration's approach, leaders of the Salvation Army of Greater New York announced last month that they plan to reassert the Army's sectarian character and begin scrutinizing the religious backgrounds of all employees even though many positions in the group's social service programs are funded by the public to the tune of $70 million annually.
The effort is apparently the result of reforms implemented by Col. Paul M. Kelly, whom the Salvation Army hired to revamp its New York operations. The New York Times reported that Kelly has already ordered a Muslim employee to remove Islamic symbols from his workspace and questioned the decision to hire one man who belongs to an "Eastern" faith.
"Periodically, we have to kind of reclaim the ecclesiastical turf, if you will," Kelly told The Times.
The newspaper reported that employees have been ordered to fill out forms describing their religious beliefs and reminded them that, when working with children, they are to emphasize Salvation Army's theological beliefs. Staffers who refuse have been reportedly threatened with termination.
"We've been told that things are changing, that they've come to whip us into shape, and they want us to be more like the Army," one anonymous Salvation Army employee said. "Everyone's really freaked out." A former employee charged that she was asked to identify gay co-workers.
About a dozen former Salvation Army employees are considering suing the group, alleging religious discrimination. The New York City Human Rights Commission is also investigating the matter.
Americans United's Lynn said the situation in New York amply illustrates the dangers in the Bush approach.
"Many of us are convinced that allowing a religious group to take taxpayer money and then engage in rank forms of religious discrimination is unfair," Lynn said. "Polls show that a majority of Americans agree with us. This issue is not going to go away."
But Lynn noted that the discrimination issue, as important as it is, remains just one flaw in the "faith-based" approach. The larger threat, Lynn said, is the very concept of government-supported religion.
"Bush, Towey and their supporters are trying to usher in an unprecedented era of government-supported religion in America," Lynn charged. "Their approach will inevitably lead to religion becoming dependant on the state for its needs and it is religion that will suffer. History shows that such a union drains faith of its strength and vitality."
In the approximately three years since Bush unveiled the "faith-based" initiative, Lynn noted, Congress has refused to enact the type of sweeping legislation the president sought. Instead, Bush has been forced to implement the initiative piecemeal using regulatory changes, executive orders and the bully pulpit.
Lynn said AU continues to actively oppose the "faith-based" initiative on many fronts. The organization works to educate political leaders on Capitol Hill and in the states about the dangers inherent in the initiative and rallies religious leaders to speak against it.
Americans United has also not ruled out future litigation against the approach. One AU case is already under way a challenge to a "faith-based" prison program in Iowa. (See "Colson Prison Blues," March 2003 Church & State.) AU attorneys are also looking into Florida's "faith-based" prison and have requested numerous public documents to get a better picture of how the institution is run.
"The situation is critical," said Lynn. "This administration is determined to knock down the church-state wall and establish a system of government-supported religion in the United States. We must step up our efforts to block this misguided and dangerous approach."