Defending Separation

Go Tell It On

Americans United has done a good job at getting the attention of the country on the now highly controversial issue of "charitable choice" and George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative." Frequently, to keep up the pressure, we have to be in any place where an articulation of our views might be useful whether those views are wanted or unwanted.

I've been doing a lot of that lately. A few weeks ago, that principle took me from the grassy area outside the Senate chamber (affectionately referred to as "the swamp") to the mountain passes of Vail, Colo. (Right, right, somebody had to do it).

My "swamp" appearance was with Sen. Rick Santorum, the principal Republican supporter of the president's initiative in the Senate. Ironically, the very person Santorum defeated, ex-Senator Harris Wofford, is eager to see some new commitment to helping those in need and had appeared on a television program with me early in the "faith-based" battle to support the general concept of using religious groups to fight poverty.

Wofford wants to see if he can bridge the divide between the two camps. He called me to ask if I would join a working group on how to get the public and private sectors engaged in this effort. He made it clear that Americans United would not be expected to compromise any of its core principles, so I agreed.

At the press conference, Sen. Santorum conceded to reporters that the president's initiative was not on the Senate's radar screen. When a reporter asked me why, as the chief opponent of the president's program, I would even join the group, my response was that Sen. Santorum didn't expect anyone to give up their fundamental beliefs but that if there were any creative solutions that people of goodwill could come up with, I was happy to try to help. It behooves us to try to find workable compromises whenever we can.

We had the first meeting of the group after the press conference. It is an eclectic band, ranging from Americans United National Advisory Council member Rabbi David Saperstein to John Castellani, the head of Teen Challenge, a fundamentalist Christian anti-drug ministry. (Castellani had raised the ire of many by announcing that his ministry is often able to "complete Jews" that is, convert them to the belief that they should accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.) The Santorum/Wofford group will operate by consensus and will meet into next year. Beyond that, no substantive issues were even discussed, much less resolved.

In Colorado I spoke to the Vail Valley Institute, a private organization that brings experts on particular topics together each summer for a series of seminars. This year the Institute focused on just how high the "wall of separation" is right now and, by implication, just how high it ought to be. I participated with Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Princeton professor Dr. Robert George, a conservative scholar who was an appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and Marvin Olasky, the University of Texas journalism professor best known as Bush's "compassionate conservative" guru.

The "faith-based initiative" dominated the discussion. The people who came to engage the experts were serious folks from all kinds of backgrounds in law, publishing, politics, business and a panoply of other interests. Attendees study the topic before the "experts" even show up, so they have a great deal of information going in. The questions and other interaction were as engaging as any I have ever had. If only there were a way to clone this program and place it around the country, we'd be one big step closer to figuring out how to keep adults engaged in genuine lifetime continuing education.

After Vail, I had to return to Washington immediately to attend the House Judiciary Committee's "mark-up" of H.R. 7, the primary "charitable choice" bill. It was another example of those who like sausage being warned to steer clear of watching it being made. The session went on for nearly 10 hours, interrupted by frequent recesses for floor votes, meals and haggling. The worst part was listening to those on the Republican side (it was, regrettably, an entirely partisan debate) attempt to explain why it remains necessary to allow religious groups that receive federal funding to discriminate in the hiring of staff to administer purely secular services.

Throughout the "mark-up," members of AU's legislative and communications staff helped legislators and reporters understand the significance of what may have appeared to be arcane changes in law and policy. That's what we do wherever we go.

As I write this, I'm looking forward to next week. It begins Monday morning with a trip with Rep. Robert Scott to visit some of the faith-based services in his central Virginia district and then participate in a forum. He has been a strong defender of church-state separation throughout this debate. By Tuesday, I expect we'll pick up some media inquiries as Bush prepares to deliver yet another major address on the "faith-based initiative" on the 4th of July.

Those specific events will be over by the time you read this, but the AU staff and I will still be plugging away on the "faith-based initiative" or some other issue. It is nonstop, but I really wouldn't want to have it any other way.

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