The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

My Review Of The Sequel To The Bush ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative

I haven’t had a chance to testify before a congressional committee for several years, but recently I was privileged to be asked by the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties to testify on the Obama administration’s implementation of the “faith-based” initiative it inherited from the Bush administration.

The committee takes written testimony seriously and, therefore, wants to see what the witnesses are going to say 48 hours in advance of the hearing. One of the many things I learned in childhood is that it’s a good thing to get your work done on time. At 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, 50 copies of my 89-page testimony (including attachments) were delivered to the clerk for the Thursday hearing two days later. 

The opening of my testimony went like this: “Nearly two years have passed …and the White House and federal agencies are still operating under the same harmful religious liberty standards and civil rights rules created by the previous administration.”

A funny thing happened a few hours later. White House staff called about 20 people, including yours truly, to be on a conference call to discuss a “major development” on the initiative. 

It sounded mysterious, and we soon learned that the “development” was that on Wednesday the president would issue an executive order changing some of the Bush policies. Was this an example of Jungian synchronicity, some cosmic confluence or even a mere random occurrence? Unlikely. It’s more likely it was a deliberate decision to have something out before the subcommittee had to wonder aloud why after 22 months not one thing had been done on an issue that is not exactly rocket science.

I once told an audience member at a media-training event that the one line that would be quoted in any newspaper if used to describe almost any new policy is: “This contains some good, some bad and some ugly,” one of my rich set of references to films, in this case the western that brought fame to Clint Eastwood. 

The “good” in the order was that a raft of government agencies were instructed to start working on language to accomplish the things everybody – left, right and center – on an advisory council said needed to change. 

The “bad” in the order concerned two big issues that the advisers had not agreed about. First, it would be unnecessary for recipients of public funds to set up a separate corporation to handle them or even to set up a separate bank account for them. Second, although “evangelism” and similar religious activity could not be attempted with government dollars, it would be perfectly fine to conduct government programs in spaces filled with scripture, religious icons and art and any other accoutrements of the faith even if it was easy to have them in more nondescript space. 

Then came the “ugly”: no decision about the one issue declared off limits to the advisers – could faith-based groups that receive tax dollars discriminate in hiring people for the very programs that are taxpayer funded?

What the White House also did, however, was decide not to send anyone to the hearing to explain the order in spite of being invited to do so. The subcommittee chair, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, is a gracious person – so he did not have an empty seat at the witness table next to the three of us who were there.

Many of the members expressed frustration about the administration’s unexplained absence. (Another thing I learned in grade school was to show up when asked – which could explain why I occasionally appear even on “The O’Reilly Factor.”) 

All of the Democratic members focused on the failure to resolve the discrimination issue in a way consistent with the longstanding idea that when you get government funds you play by national civil rights rules. In my five minutes of summarizing my testimony, I called this, axiomatically, “If you don’t play by my rules, you shouldn’t be playing with my money.”

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) was at the time the chair of the full Judiciary Committee, and he attended the entire hearing. Conyers and I go back a long way. Indeed, I recalled recently that he was the other guest on the very first national television show I ever did, a long-gone Sunday public-affairs program called “Directions.”

Also attending were U.S. Reps. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.), both of whom made some powerful points about the danger taxpayer-funded religious hiring bias poses to our nation’s commitment to civil rights. 

Nadler ended the hearing by noting that this was the last event he would chair for the next few years because the Republicans will be taking charge in January. Some of the comments made by the soon-to-be majority members at this hearing gave me the sinking feeling that although it would still be the Subcommittee on the Constitution, the new leadership might be promoting a constitutional document that will seem like it was written for some other planet.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.