In the latest attempt to resuscitate its faltering faith-based initiative, the Bush administration has promised to make changes to the scheme to make it more palatable to critics.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the leading opponent of the president's faith-based proposal, described the White House's effort as empty rhetoric.
"These so-called improvements are more spin than substance," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "When it comes to the faith-based issue, the president seems more concerned with rhetoric than reality."
The congressional version of the White House plan, the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7), sponsored by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), has stalled in Congress, plagued by criticism from across the political and theological spectrum. While some sections of the measure are non-controversial, intense debate has focused on the bill's "charitable choice" provisions that would direct federal grants and contracts to churches and other religious groups without appropriate legal safeguards.
The administration is now scrambling to get the initiative moving again, with promises of improvements in a June 25 address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and subsequent media interviews. Upon closer analysis, however, these alleged adjustments are inadequate, misleading or completely silent on serious flaws that have beset the initiative since its introduction.
White House Claim: President George W. Bush told the Conference of Mayors, "We recognize that the funds will be spent on social services, not worship services."
Fact: This hardly represents a change in the administration's approach. The White House plan and Watts bill already say that no tax dollars can be spent on worship. The real concern with the Bush plan, however, is that it allows families seeking government assistance to be proselytized in publicly funded programs. Volunteers and privately paid staff would still be free to apply religious pressures to those in need.
In other words, this "new" claim is ineffectual, and it misses the point. In fact, in the same speech, Bush emphasized the importance of religion in social services, celebrating a Baptist church program that moves troubled teens into Bible studies. The president said, "America can be saved, one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time," religious language that is hardly reassuring to those who support the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
White House Claim: The White House is considering dropping language in the Watts bill that allows publicly funded religious groups to discriminate in hiring based on the groups' "religious practices."
Fact: This is a red herring and does nothing to address concerns about publicly funded discrimination. The Watts bill currently includes a provision that says a religious group can require that its employees adhere to the "religious practices of the organization." Even if that language is removed, the plan still allows discrimination.
Under federal law (Title VII), religious groups can discriminate in employment based on religious affiliation, as well as characteristics the religious group might find relevant, including sexual orientation, marital status or pregnancy status. Since the Bush plan extends these exemptions to publicly funded religious groups, government-subsidized employment discrimination would take place.
Furthermore, Steven Goldsmith, an administration official and advisor to Bush on the faith-based issue, admits that discrimination will part of the Bush plan. "The president remains firm, so far as I know, in the ability of faith-based organizations to hire on the basis of religion," Goldsmith told reporters after Bush's speech to the mayors' conference.
White House Claim: Bush officials told The Washington Post that the administration wants "new language specifying that direct government grants must go to a separate account from private funds."
Fact: The Watts bill, H.R. 7, already includes language that calls for separate accounts. The administration is again calling for a "protection" that already exists.
White House Claim: Bush wants faith-based groups to have accountability requirements, including "self-audits."
Fact: It's hard to claim with a straight face that "self-audits" are a meaningful way to guarantee public accountability of government-financed religious groups. Consider telling the I.R.S. that you prefer the "self-audit" approach the next time it has questions about your own personal bookkeeping.
White House Claim: The administration told the Post it wants an individual who objects to the religious component of a program -- for example, a prayer service in a homeless shelter -- to be able to skip it and still get the social services.
Fact: At least on paper, charitable choice law has always included provisions to prohibit tying mandatory religious practices to receiving social services. But this still misses the point. The basis for so many complaints is the question of proselytizing in a government-funded program. Even with this so-called protection in place, families seeking government aid face serious difficulties that could undermine their religious liberties.
Consider an example. A Jewish family could be sent by the government to a publicly funded soup kitchen run by a fundamentalist Christian church. Despite the so-called fixes from the White House, the family members could be still pressured to accept the divinity of Jesus by volunteers or privately paid staffers during the program. What's Bush's answer to this problem? He hasn't offered one.
White House Claim: Administration officials have indicated a willingness to drop a provision of the Watts bill that would enable religious groups that are denied public aid to file suit against local governments, leading to an explosion of expensive lawsuits.
Fact: This part of the Bush plan has drawn intense criticism from representatives of local government agencies, who fear a tidal wave of litigation. Even if the White House removes the provision from the Watts bill, the right to sue state and local governments will remain. Since the law requires equal access to grants for religious and secular service providers, ministries that have been denied funding will be eligible to go to court.
White House Claim: Bush told the mayors, "(W)e recognize there must be secular alternatives for those who wish to use the services."
Fact: This point has been proven to be problematic for the White House. First, this provision represents a classic example of an unfunded mandate on states. Administration officials have admitted in congressional testimony that there's no additional funding available for state governments to finance these "secular alternatives." Second, and just as importantly, this could create a hardship for those seeking aid. In some instances, particularly in rural and less populated areas, the closest "alternative" can be a great distance away for families in need. This policy therefore will put the disadvantaged in an impossible position. They may be asked to submit to religious coercion or face going without food, shelter or other needed services to which they are legally entitled.
White House Claim: Bush told the mayors' conference, "We respect the separation of church and state, and the constitutional rights of religious people."
Fact: If only that were true. If Bush took the First Amendment seriously, he never would have introduced a plan to give billions of tax dollars to houses of worship. And if the "rights of religious people" were truly respected by the White House, then the president would not support a plan that would send families in need to publicly funded ministries that may try to convert them, simply to get benefits.
"The core constitutional and policy concerns posed by the White House faith-based initiative remain completely disregarded by these hollow 'adjustments,'" concluded AU's Lynn. "The president should give up on this unconstitutional, unnecessary and unworkable scheme. This plan forces taxpayers to support religion, it could force religion on families in need and it threatens the independence of our houses of worship. It's a disastrous policy whose time should never come."
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.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.