Invitation-Only Summit

Feeling Left Out At The 'Faith-Based' Party

Some days you just don't feel wanted. Think back to the time you were the last kid picked for the dodge ball team. Well, I had two of those days lately.

U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) held a big "faith-based summit" in late April to discuss President George W. Bush's plan to give grants to churches and other faith-based providers for social service work. I asked to come even promised to sit quietly and be on my best behavior but was rebuffed. Apparently, you had to get a special invitation from a Republican member of Congress to get in the door.

Now, I know a lot of Republicans, but I was pretty much told not to bother even trying to locate one who would slip me an invitation because the event was all filled up anyway.

I wasn't the only one excluded. Summit organizers also barred the news media from most of the sessions. The one event open to the press was a really fancy luncheon at the Library of Congress. Reporters were told they would have an opportunity to ask questions, but this was no conventional press conference. Watts made brief remarks, took exactly three questions and then left the room.

(By the way, I'm investigating the price tag for this shindig because it sure looked like it probably cost more than the yearly budgets of some of the anti-hunger programs this "faith-based initiative" is supposed to help out. But I digress.)

Wouldn't you know it, the very next day I was snubbed again. This time I got an invitation in the morning to testify about AU's concerns with the "faith-based initiative" before a House subcommittee on government affairs hearing that afternoon. The call came from the office of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). I said sure, I'd love to testify.

A few hours after that conversation, however, we got another call from Cummings' office informing me that the committee chairman, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), did not want me to testify and had in fact barred me from doing so. Souder argued that the Democrats already had a witness; Cummings' office countered that the GOP side had eight witnesses. I learned back in kindergarten that eight against one violates some universal rule of fairness.

Cummings' staff suggested I walk over to the hearing and just show up, in the hope this could all be resolved. Well, they tried for hours, but Souder was adamant. No five minutes for me! A formal protest was lodged, but Souder wouldn't even agree to allow me to testify the next time he held a hearing.

I had to wonder what he's afraid of. The Bush "faith-based" plan, after all, could involve as much as $8 billion in tax resources. That's no small chunk of change. One would think, when we're talking about such a staggering sum, that more input is better than less.

More likely than not, Souder just didn't want to hear what I had to say. Maybe he was afraid I'd use that Jack Nicholson line from the movie "A Few Good Men." You remember when Nicholson's character, who is testifying in court and being badgered for the "truth" by a lawyer, snarls, "The truth? You couldn't handle the truth!" I'd never do that.

After the hearing ended, a few House staff members came over to apologize to me for wasting my time. I said I appreciated their efforts to help and added, "I've been at sit-ins in far more uncomfortable places over the past 30 years." Nicholson might want to borrow that line some time.

But these things don't make me lose much sleep. Luckily, J.C. Watts and Mark Souder don't control everything the public learns. For example, our communications department passed out press releases at the Watts luncheon that asked whether he was hiding something by barring reporters from this discussion of spending billions of tax dollars. Later that day, National Public Radio carried AU's complaint, and the next day, many newspaper articles did so as well.

We also managed to get AU's message out even though I was denied the opportunity to speak at the Souder hearing. During the hearing, the issue came up about why the administration wants to use tax dollars to fund groups that discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring people to provide their social services. I didn't get to object to this noxious practice there where about 100 people were sitting in the audience but I was able to make the same point a few days later in USA Today, which has a circulation of about 2 million. I observed, "In my experience, Methodists don't ladle out soup or make up beds in a shelter any differently that do Catholics, Mormons or non-believers." Thus, discriminatory hiring seemed, at best, unnecessary and certainly not acceptable with taxpayer dollars.

So, the moral of this column may be: It's not always who you know that counts. Often, the truth just finds its way to the surface anyway.

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