During a recent speech in Atlanta, Vice President Al Gore told a story about a Texas woman with limited English skills who had just about given up on finding work, until a religious organization assigned her a mentor who used prayer and Bible study to help her gain confidence. The woman soon landed a job at a Wal-Mart and was recently named employee of the month.
Gore was obviously impressed by the work the Christian Women's Job Corps had done -- so much so that he's calling for government to begin entering into "partnerships" with houses of worship to address a variety of social ills, from drug addiction and child abuse to chronic unemployment and homelessness.
The call for church and state to join forces to fight social problems may sound familiar. The concept, known as "charitable choice," has been steadily gaining in popularity on Capitol Hill and in state capitals over the past few years. But in this case, the messenger was unexpected.
Until Gore's May 24 speech at a Salvation Army facility, charitable choice has been most closely identified with its lead congressional sponsor, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), and other conservative Republicans. Ashcroft, a Religious Right favorite who considered seeking the presidency in 2000, popularized the term "charitable choice" and inserted the concept into a 1996 bill overhauling the nation's welfare system. He has since advocated including the concept in virtually all social service programs.
Ashcroft's desire to plant charitable choice in other bills has so far met with mixed success. But Gore's endorsement may give that effort a boost. The day after Gore's speech, Ashcroft welcomed the vice president's support, saying it "can be a very important asset to the efforts in Congress to expand this provision to other areas of federal law, such as housing, drug treatment and services for seniors."
The Republican Party's presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, speaks frequently of "compassionate conservatism" and has welcomed "faith-based" organizations as partners in social work. Other GOP presidential hopefuls have endorsed the concept as well.
With leaders in both parties plugging charitable choice, the idea is bound to see a dramatic escalation in the legislative arena. All of this could have dire consequences for the separation of church and state.
During his Atlanta speech, Gore several times reiterated his support for church-state separation. But constitutional experts argue that it's impossible to square the First Amendment with a wide-ranging, costly program of taxpayer-funded religion.
Gore's comments left little doubt where he stands. Indeed, some of his words seemed to echo Religious Right rhetoric. Bemoaning the "allergy to faith" in modern society, he told the crowd, "For too long, national leaders have been trapped in a dead-end debate. Some on the right have said for too long that a specific set of religious values should be imposed, threatening the founders' precious separation of church and state. In contrast, some on the left have said for too long that religious values should play no role in addressing public needs. These are false choices: hollow secularism or right-wing religion. Both positions are rigid; they are not where the new solutions lie."
Continued Gore, "I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. But freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion. There is a better way."
The vice president insisted there should always be secular alternatives for needy people who want them but added, "[F]aith-based organizations can provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care. They can do so with public funds and without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness.
"Today," continued Gore, "I give you this pledge: If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration."
Even as Gore was speaking, members of Congress were working to insert charitable choice into several pending bills. Americans United Legislative Counsel Julie Segal is currently monitoring the following initiatives:
* The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act: This bill is a package of proposals designed to toughen penalties for crimes committed by juveniles and spur anti-gang initiatives. The measure, which includes a charitable choice provision similar to the one in the 1996 welfare bill, passed the Senate but died in the House due to its controversial gun control measures. However, a version of its charitable choice provisions was folded into a separate juvenile justice bill that has passed both chambers. (See "House of Horrors," page 4.)
* The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Reauthorization Act: This bill would fund various mental health and anti-drug initiatives. The version introduced in the Senate contained no charitable choice provisions, but Ashcroft and his allies are expected to try to add them when the Senate Labor Committee takes up the measure, probably after Congress' summer recess.
* The Charitable Choice Expansion Act: This omnibus bill, sponsored by Ashcroft, would apply charitable choice automatically to a whole host of public health and social service measures. Ashcroft introduced the measure the day after Gore's remarks, touting the vice president's support.
* Older Americans Reauthorization Act: This package of proposals aimed at senior citizens will be a battleground for charitable choice provisions. It is not currently moving in Congress.
* American Community Renewal Act: A mostly GOP-backed proposal for urban renewal, this proposal contains the most sweeping charitable choice provisions yet proposed. A nonbinding resolution supporting this act passed the House in June.
The theory behind charitable choice is not new. Religiously affiliated organizations have contracted with the government to provide social services for a long time. Catholic Charities, for example, provides an array of services to the needy and gets much of its budget from government sources. Various Jewish and Protestant agencies have accepted state aid over the years as well.
But charitable choice takes that idea and moves it into uncharted waters. The key difference is that under the old rules, church-state safeguards were in place. In many cases, churches ran their social service projects through separately incorporated entities. They were not permitted to infuse the programs with sectarian content or discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff. In some cases, religious symbols were removed from facilities that served the public.
Charitable choice proponents insist that those practices are burdensome and interfere with religious groups' effectiveness and ability to get the job done -- although they cite no evidence to back up that assertion. Charitable choice schemes, therefore, deliberately free publicly funded, church-run programs from meaningful government oversight.
Gore, like some other charitable choice backers, insists that the scheme can be implemented while respecting the separation of church and state. During his Atlanta Salvation Army speech, he noted his support for "clear and strict" church-state safeguards.
But some church-state experts remain skeptical. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn says, "Charitable choice is fatally flawed from a constitutional perspective. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay for programs that promote religion or allow discrimination in hiring. Charitable choice does just that."
As a practical matter, Lynn and other critics assert, once public money is turned over to religious groups, there is no meaningful way to make sure it isn't spent to further religion. Banning proselytism -- as Gore suggests -- is equally unrealistic, critics say, unless government inspectors are to suddenly start invading every church-run homeless shelter or soup kitchen in America.
Lynn and other charitable choice critics say that aside from forcing taxpayers to assist with evangelism, charitable choice plans threaten to undermine the integrity and vitality of churches by aligning them with government. Voluntary donations and volunteers may disappear.
Another charitable choice critic, the Rev. James M. Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., took his concerns directly to Gore. In a letter to the vice president, Dunn wrote, "I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, 'you've ripped your britches.'"
Continued Dunn, who serves on Americans United's Board of Trustees, "When government 'helps' religion it always has the touch of mud. It unfailingly hurts religion."
These protests are likely to fall on deaf ears. Gore's presidential campaign is well under way, and his staff has apparently seized upon charitable choice as a way of adding a dose of religiosity to his effort.
Although Gore denies any political intent behind the proposal, Elaine Kamarck, Gore's senior policy advisor, was blunt about its possible effects. Just days before the vice president's speech in Atlanta, she told the Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take God back this time."
Observers also note that Gore seems determined to raise religious issues during the campaign. Four days after the speech, Gore, a Southern Baptist, met with seven religion reporters at the White House, where he discussed his personal beliefs.
Responding to a reporter's question about the depth of his religious commitment, Gore replied, "Faith is the center of my life. I don't wear it on my sleeve, but I'm happy to respond to your question by affirming my faith....I think the purpose of life is to glorify God. I turn to my faith as the bedrock of my approach to any important question in my life." (Gore, however, reiterated his opposition to religious school vouchers and state-sponsored prayer in public schools.)
Although conservatives have promoted charitable choice schemes for years, several reacted negatively to Gore's sudden interest in the concept. Newspaper columnist James P. Pinkerton warned that the danger "is that religion will become a publicly funded subsidiary" of the state.
Some religious leaders remain wary as well. Although charitable choice supporters insist that churches that take taxpayer money won't end up tangled in bureaucratic red tape, many of the people who run social services programs are worried. They fear that regulations could be added by politicians later or come about as a result of litigation.
Ironically, the very organization that Gore touted during his Atlanta speech, the Christian Women's Job Corps (CWJC), does not accept government funding and doesn't want any. Trudy Johnson, a spokeswoman with the CWJC, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's Women's Missionary Union, told The Christian Index in June, "There's always the fear that even though the claims are 'no strings attached,' there may be some. We don't want to be the test case to discover what the strings might be."
That test case will come soon, if Americans United has its way. The organization continues to gather information about charitable choice in the hope of eventually bringing a challenge against it on church-state grounds into the federal courts. AU attorneys are looking over material from several states, searching for the strongest case. They are particularly interested in finding a publicly funded program that engages in religious employment discrimination.
Americans United continues to chair a national coalition of more than 60 religious and public policy organizations opposed to charitable choice. Religious participants include American Baptist Churches, USA; the American Jewish Committee; the American Jewish Congress; the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; Catholics for a Free Choice; Central Conference of American Rabbis; the Church of the Brethren, Washington Office; Friends Committee on National Legislation; the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; the Presbyterian Church, USA and the Unitarian Universalist Association, Washington Office.
Other groups taking part include Americans for Democratic Action, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, the National Black Women's Health Project, the National Education Association and the National Mental Health Association.
Critics of charitable choice note that, ironically, all of this talk about awarding religious groups taxpayer money comes at a time when Americans are being more generous to charities voluntarily. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in June that donations to charities, including religious groups, rose by nearly 9 percent in 1998. Gift-giving totaled an estimated $175 billion, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy.
Human-services organizations, which includes groups that help the needy, saw dramatic gains in giving, with an overall increase of more than 25 percent. One religiously affiliated human service group, Catholic Relief Services, saw giving increase by 18 percent in 1998.
Churches and other houses of worship benefited as well, and giving to them totaled more than $76 billion. (The report estimated that 44 percent of all charitable giving ends up in the coffers of religious organizations.)
Charitable choice opponents say the record giving rates are further evidence that Americans should not be taxed to support sectarian social service ministries.
"Americans are already giving billions annually to churches and church social service projects," said Lynn. "Why the government feels compelled to force them to give even more is beyond me. Once people start to realize they are being taxed to support religious organizations, they may be less generous with voluntary contributions, figuring they already 'gave at the office.'"
Continued Lynn, "The church-state flaws of charitable choice are serious enough, but the scheme has an overlooked danger. It could eliminate one of the greatest assets the church has in the battle against poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and other social ills: the power of millions of Americans who give voluntarily to right a wrong and correct society's problems."