In 1996, when then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri successfully lobbied for so-called "charitable choice" provisions to be included in a landmark welfare reform bill, most of the nation saw no immediate change. he Clinton administration was slow to implement the new policy and most states ignored the change in the law that permitted taxpayer-financed social service funding of churches and other "pervasively sectarian" groups where religion permeates every aspect of the institution.
Texas, however, under the leadership of Gov. George W. Bush, saw the change in the law as something to embrace.
Bush quickly created a 16-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups composed largely of individuals who shared Bush's religious and political views which prepared a report calling for a church-state partnership in the Lone Star State. Bush subsequently issued an executive order directing state agencies to work with houses of worship to provide social services while allowing them to maintain their "unique ecclesiastical nature."
Five years after Bush's gubernatorial administration implemented sweeping policies on uniting state agencies and faith-based charities, the Texas Freedom Network is reporting on the results of the experiment. According to the statewide, non-profit educational group, the policies have been an abject failure.
" After five years of aggressively implementing a Bush-style faith-based initiative in Texas, positive results have proven impossible to document or measure," Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), said at an Oct. 10 Capitol Hill press conference. "Evidence points instead to a system that is unregulated, prone to favoritism and co-mingling of funds, and even dangerous to the very people it is supposed to serve."
According to the TFN report, Texas has seen a number of tragic consequences unfold as a result of Bush's policies.
Perhaps the most damaging change in Texas' policies came when Bush dropped a requirement that ministries providing social services be accredited by the state. Bush exempted faith-based programs from state health and safety regulations that state agencies had to follow and even allowed the religious groups to bypass criminal background checks and minimum training requirements for employees.
The policies and loosened regulations, according to TFN, has endangered people in need and lowered standards of client health, safety and quality of care in Texas. Just as importantly, the change provided a refuge for facilities with a history of regulatory violations, a theological objection to state oversight and a higher rate of abuse and neglect.
In one appalling example, Teresa Calalay, who spoke at TFN's event, shared a story about the experiences of her son, who was physically mistreated at the Roloff Homes. The religiously affiliated children's home is notorious for child abuse allegations and skirting state licensing, but it was nevertheless allowed to re-open in Texas under the faith-based initiative and "earned" accreditation by the Texas Association for Christian Child Care Agencies instead of the state government. Calalay reported on the often brutal treatment including broken bones her son received at the facility, which she believed was a legitimate ministry.
TFN's Smoot said the policies have been a disaster.
" The faith-based initiative has proven to be a treacherous enterprise for houses of worship, taxpayers and people in need alike," Smoot said. "So treacherous, in fact, that even the very legislators who once promoted the faith-based initiative in Texas have now abandoned the idea, choosing not to renew the state's 'alternative accreditation' program for religious providers last year."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the report is critically important because the same policies that failed in Texas are now being pushed by the Bush White House as a model for the entire nation.
" Many of those involved in the policy debate over the Bush faith-based plan have discussed what might happen if the scheme became the law of the land," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "We're now learning about what did happen when these same policies were implemented at a statewide level and the extent to which these efforts failed everyone involved. If the policy was a disaster in Texas, why in the world would we want it expanded to the entire country?
" The Texas Freedom Network's report offers an important lesson," Lynn told press conference attendees. "For many families in Texas, the damage has already occurred. But it's not too late to prevent the same mistake from happening twice."