The Bush 'Faith-Based' Initiative

Why It's Wrong

President George W. Bush has launched a major national drive to give broad-based public funding to churches and other religious groups to provide social services. As part of the administration's crusade, Bush has created a new federal agency, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, that will work from the White House to expand government aid to religious ministries and create church-state "partnerships."

Here are 10 reasons why the president's campaign should be rejected.

1. Bush's plan violates the separation of the church and state.

Under the First Amendment, American citizens are free to decide on their own whether or not to support religious ministries, and the government must stay out of it. Bush's faith-based plan turns the time-tested constitutional principle of church-state separation on its ear.

At its core, Bush's plan throws the massive weight of the federal government behind religious groups and religious conversions to solve social problems. While houses of worship have played an important role in this country since its founding, these institutions have thrived on voluntary contributions. Forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious institutions they may or may not believe in is no different from forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues and mosques.

When unveiling his legislative plan to Congress Jan. 30, Bush said, "Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities." This, however, is a distinction without a difference. In most instances, the services provided by religious ministries are explicitly religious. The president, therefore, cannot honestly suggest that he will "change lives" by funding religious groups and maintain the fa\xe7ade that he is not also funding religion.

2. Tax-funded hiring discrimination is unfair.

Under the president's proposal, churches will be legally permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring, despite receiving public dollars. A Bob Jones-style religious group, for example, will be able to receive tax aid to pay for a social service job, but still be free to hang up a sign that says "Jews And Catholics Need Not Apply."

In other words, an American could help pay for a job but be declared ineligible for the position because of his or her religious beliefs. That's not compassionate conservatism, that's outrageous. And under Bush's plan, it's perfectly legal.

3. Religion could be forced on those in need of assistance.

Under Bush's approach, religious institutions would receive taxpayer support to finance social services and would still be free to proselytize people seeking assistance. The religious freedom of beneficiaries would therefore be seriously threatened. Those in need may face religious indoctrination when they are sent to a religious organization to obtain their government benefits.

The president has promised "secular alternatives" for those who don't want to be forced to go to a house of worship for help. But in some instances, particularly in rural and less populated areas, the closest "alternative" can be a great distance away.

Imagine, for example, a Baptist family in need looking for food and shelter. The government tells the family they can visit the Mormon temple nearby or travel 100 miles for help from a "secular alternative."

Bush's policies will put the disadvantaged in an impossible position. They will either submit to religious coercion or go without food, shelter or other needed services to which they are legally entitled. Placing people in need in this kind of position is wrong.

4. Bush's plan opens the door to federal regulation of religion.

Government always regulates what it finances. This occurs because public officials are obliged to make certain that taxpayer funds are properly spent. Once churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are being financed by the public, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow.

Houses of worship that have flourished as private institutions may suddenly have their books audited or face regular spot checks by federal inspectors in order to ensure appropriate "accountability."

5. The vitality of faith communities will be hurt.

For years, millions of Americans have become active with their local houses of worship, making special contributions as a way to strengthen their ties to their faith traditions and increase personal piety. Once religious institutions are working in tandem with the federal government and receiving tax dollars to provide services, members may be less inclined to "dig a little deeper" to help with expenses.

As these contributions drop off, the attendant spirit of volunteerism may also wither away. Making religious institutions dependent on the government for money will only harm these institutions and their vitality in the long run.

6. Bush's plan pits faith groups against each other.

Since the founding of the nation, all religious groups have stood equal in the eyes of the law.

The Bush plan, however, calls for competition between religious groups. For the first time in American history, religious groups will be asked, indeed encouraged, to battle it out for a piece of the government pie. Pitting houses of worship against each other in this fashion is a recipe for conflict.

7. Some religions will be favored over others.

While on the campaign trail, Bush promised that he would "not discriminate for or against Methodist or Mormons or Muslims or good people with no faith at all."

Then he announced he would not allow funding of the Nation of Islam, because, as he sees it, the group "preaches hate." The president has not, however, explained how the government will decide which groups preach "hate," and which preach "love." Stephen Goldsmith, who will be chiefly responsible for implementing the president's plan, has indicated the administration may also discriminate against groups affiliated with the Wiccan faith.

The Bush plan is already on shaky legal ground; once the president starts picking and choosing which faiths will get government aid and which ones won't, the plan quickly starts to drown in constitutional quicksand.

8. There's no proof that religious groups will offer better care than secular providers.

Many supporters of Bush's proposal have insisted that faith-based institutions are better, and far more successful, than secular service providers. However, little empirical research supports these claims. Few studies have examined whether religious ministries are more successful than secular groups in providing aid or producing better results, and it is unwise to launch a major federal initiative with so little research in the area.

Even Goldsmith has acknowledged this fact. During a Jan. 29 interview on National Public Radio, Goldsmith was asked whether there was "hard proof" of faith-based efforts being more effective. Goldsmith answered, "No."

There is also no proof that America's religious communities will be ready, willing or able to assist the many individuals and families who now receive secular aid from the government. No one knows if ministries will have the resources or staff to accommodate a large influx of people who will have little choice but to seek their assistance if Bush's plan is implemented.

Complicating matters, houses of worship are exempt from compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A person in need confined to a wheel chair, for example, may not be able to get in a church's front door to receive assistance, even if he or she is willing to put up with religious indoctrination.

9. Both liberals and conservatives are concerned about Bush's plan.

Controversies surrounding Bush's scheme are not limited to a "left vs. right" argument. Americans United is part of a broad coalition of education, religious and civil liberties groups opposed to Bush's faith-based plan. The coalition includes organizations such as the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, the American Counseling Association and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Concerned conservative leaders have also expressed reservations about the plan. For example, representatives of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, argued that mixing government and charity is dangerous. Cato staffer Michael Tanner said the Bush plan "risks destroying the very things that make private charity so effective."

Prominent leaders from the African American community have expressed strong criticism of Bush's plan as well. Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), have already spoken out.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and himself a Baptist minister, said, "I think there has to be a strong wall, a solid wall between church and state. I don't want to see religious groups out trying to convert or proselytize with federal dollars."

10. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

For years, public funds have provided services at religiously affiliated organizations. However, strict safeguards have been in place to protect the interests of taxpayers and the religious liberties of those receiving assistance. Independent religious agencies, not churches themselves, handled the public funds. Tax dollars supported only secular programs, and no religious discrimination with public funds was permitted.

Bush's plan radically alters that set-up by allowing religious groups to proselytize while providing public services.