Fathers Count, Constitution Doesn't

U.S. House Approves Church Funding, Attacks Church-State Separation

For U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), the matter was crystal clear.

While engaged in a debate on the House floor with Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) over public funding of religious groups, Johnson zeroed in on the important difference between her position and that of her colleague.

"The bottom line here is C and the gentleman from Texas said it very clearly C you do not want churches getting the money," Johnson remarked. "I do want churches getting the money. That is the bottom line."

Johnson's blunt critique was just one of many attacks on church-state separation launched in the House of Representatives Nov. 10. Members were considering legislation, cosponsored by Johnson and Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), that would provide federal funds for programs intended to boost fathers' parenting skills and help low-income families stay intact and off welfare.

The bill, known as the "Fathers Count Act of 1999" (H.R. 3073), authorizes $150 million over six years for nonprofit groups and state agencies to assist low-income fathers improve their educational, economic and employment status.

However, the nonprofit groups that would be eligible under the measure include houses of worship and other "pervasively sectarian" groups. In fact, the legislation specifies that 75 percent of the federally funded "fatherhood grants" must go to nongovernmental organizations.

Johnson, a representative regarded in the past as a Republican moderate, defended her bill as a meaningful way to help families.

"This legislation will fund projects directed at helping poor fathers meet their responsibilities by promoting marriage, improving their parenting skills, and developing their earning power," she said.

"[K]ids need dads," Johnson added. "Dads count, just like moms count."

Critics of the proposal found the matter to be much more complex.

"Fathers count, but so does the Constitution," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a press statement. "Promoting strong families is a good thing, but forcing taxpayers to support religious institutions against their will is not." Americans United and allied religious and civil liberties groups wrote House members to oppose the bill's church-state provisions.

It was exactly this point that served as the framework for an afternoon of heated debate in the Capitol. When the House took up the bill, the exchange was initially one about welfare reform and ways to assist fathers to stay with their families. That quickly became a clash over the very meaning of the First Amendment, with some members wondering aloud whether church and state should be separate at all.

The basis of the church-state controversy focused on "charitable choice" language in the bill that would give tax dollars to religious groups to provide social services.

Rep. Edwards, a staunch separationist, sought to bring "Fathers Count" into greater compliance with the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent. His proposed amendment was one simple sentence: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, funds shall not be provided under this section to any faith-based institution that is pervasively sectarian."

Edwards explained that without his amendment, the "Fathers Count" legislation would be unconstitutional - funding religious discrimination, forcing taxpayers to support religion and jeopardizing the independence of religious institutions.

"The Founding Fathers made it very clear," said Edwards, "and not just in putting it in the Bill of Rights, but putting in the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights, this principle: that the best way to have religious freedom and respect in America is to build a firewall between government regulations and religion. And that separation, that wall of separation between church and state, has for 200 years worked extraordinarily well....Why in the world, in a 20-minute debate over an amendment on the floor today in this House, should we, in effect, tear down that wall of separation between church and state and put at risk the independence and freedom of religious organizations and institutions all across this country?"

Edwards' valiant stand for the First Amendment quickly earned backing from House allies.

Speakers who supported the Edwards proposal included Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even bill cosponsor Cardin.

But the measure's other sponsor was less than pleased.

Said Johnson. "I think, if we pass the Edwards amendment here today, it will have a very chilling effect on both the federal government's and the state government's willingness to include faith-based organizations in their network of service providers...," she said. The Connecticut representative even defended the bill's employment discrimination provision, claiming it is necessary so that Catholic day care centers run by religious orders could hire only nuns.

Johnson also offered an unusual legal defense of her bill. More or less conceding that current Supreme Court case law may not approve of church funding, Johnson argued that the justices may be less supportive of church-state separation in the future and therefore current court policy should not be written into the bill.

While Johnson's unorthodox legal commentary raised some eyebrows among legal experts, her approach was mild compared to the comments of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the third highest ranking member of the House.

DeLay not only offered the House's most vituperative assault on Edwards' amendment, he also levied one of the most combative attacks on church-state separation by a prominent political leader in recent memory.

"It is amazing to me how people can misinterpret history," DeLay said. "Separation of church and state was created in this century by these courts....To claim that our Founding Fathers were for separation of church and state is either rewriting history or being very ignorant of history. So I just rise in strong opposition to the charge that there is this great wall separating this government from religious influence. There was no such separation when the nation was founded, and there can be no separation today."

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) voiced strong disapproval of DeLay's screed.

"We should all feel some trepidation at what has just been spoken in this chamber," Strickland said. "As a former United Methodist minister, I know and I believe that there is an appropriate role that religious organizations play in social services. In fact, they are already doing wonderful things with federal funding through such secular affiliations as Catholic Charities and Jewish Federations. We are grateful to them for providing desperately needed services. But when we cross the line and let specific churches receive federal grants and then engage in discriminatory practices, we are setting back the clock of civil rights in our country.

"This bill would allow churches and synagogues to receive federal money directly, which would in turn allow them to use those federal funds to discriminate in hiring practices," Strickland added. "Do we want to open that door? Do we really want to see a sign in front of a church getting federal funds that says, 'Jews need not apply'? Do we want to see a sign in front of a Protestant church saying 'Catholics will not be considered for this position'? I think not. I hope not. I pray not."

Strickland's warning, however, went unheeded. The House rejected Edwards' amendment by a 238-184 vote. (See vote on page 9.) Soon after, the House approved the entire bill, 328-93.

"Fathers Count" now moves to the Senate for consideration. While there is no identical companion bill in the Senate, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Evan Byah (D-Ind.) have introduced a similar measure.

Church-state separationists are gearing up for another fight.

"Taxpayer money should never be used to advance religious proselytism or finance religious discrimination," said AU's Lynn. "For all concerned, it's best that houses of worship rely on private donations to fund their social service projects. We hope this bill can be stopped in the Senate."