On A Wing And A Prayer

Watts & Co. Unveil 'Faith-Based' Plan In Congress, But Critics Express Doubt About Latest Scheme To Unite Church And State

For Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the issue couldn't be clearer. Religious groups do quality work, he believes, and therefore should be given tax dollars.

"Faith-based and community groups have been quietly feeding the hungry and clothing the poor for years," Watts said March 21 at a Capitol Hill press conference. "We ought to promote the good work they do and empower them with resources to reach out to those who need their help."

Days later, Watts and other congressional advocates of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative launched the latest offensive in the battle to fund religious groups' social service work. He introduced a bill to write the administration's policy proposal into federal law and "empower" religious ministries with millions of dollars from the U.S. treasury.

Watts, chairman of the House Republican Conference and himself a Southern Baptist minister, is spearheading House activities, but he is not alone. His bill, the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7), is being co-sponsored by Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Following the model laid out by the Bush White House, the Watts-Hall bill would award tax dollars in the form of federal grants or contracts to churches and other religious groups to provide social services. Areas targeted are housing, juvenile justice, community development, job training, child welfare and child care, crime prevention, senior citizen services, domestic violence prevention and hunger relief.

The Senate, meanwhile, saw the introduction of a similar, but far less contentious, program for aiding charities. Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced the "Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act" (S. 592) just hours after Watts' press conference.

The Senate bill promotes charitable donations through a range of new tax credits and individual development accounts. Unlike its House counterpart, the legislation does not include the controversial "charitable choice" language that allows federal dollars to be given to ministries for social services.

The House and Senate bills were introduced at a time of increasing turmoil for Bush's faith-based initiative. The White House unit responsible for implementing the policy, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has come under increasing fire from across the ideological spectrum. Some Religious Right leaders have expressed their frustrations with the effort and even called for the departure of John DiIulio, head of the faith-based office. Senate advocates of the initiative, including Bush ally Santorum, have conceded that important details of the plan needed to be worked out, and a Senate version of the measure could be delayed up to a year.

Watts, however, made every effort to brush aside the criticism surrounding the proposal and promoted his legislation as if passage was practically a foregone conclusion.

"The bill that we will unveil will be a comprehensive package that closely mirrors the president's proposal," Watts said March 20. "It is already bipartisan, and I predict the faith-basedlegislation...will be supported by an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives."

The Bush administration, anxious for some good news on the subject, applauded the introduction of the bills.

"These new legislative initiatives demonstrate that momentum continues to build behind my agenda to rally America's armies of compassion," Bush said in a White House statement. He added that he sees the House and Senate bills as "important first steps to advance this agenda to aid churches, synagogues, mosques and communities in helping neighbors in need."

While the White House may have seen the bills' introduction as a positive development, supporters of church-state separation saw a disaster in the making.

In fact, many of the same burdensome questions that have raised so many doubts about the Bush plan in recent months apply to the House drive to give tax dollars to religious groups. In some cases, the measure raises new uncertainties about the initiative's effects on those in need, houses of worship and the First Amendment.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has led opposition to the Bush initiative, believes the Watts-Hall bill poses irreconcilable legal and policy difficulties.

"This bill clearly violates the Constitution," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It subjects people in need to religious coercion, subsidizes religious discrimination and undercuts the integrity of America's houses of worship."

An examination of the Watts-Hall bill demonstrates plenty of details to bolster Lynn's concerns.

By directing federal funds to churches and other ministries, the bill raises immediate constitutional questions. The legislation halfheartedly attempts to address this issue by including language that says funding "received by a religious organization...constitutes aid to individuals and families in need, the ultimate beneficiaries of such services, and not aid to the religious organization."

This language, however, constitutes nothing more than a legal fiction.

"The bill gives aid to religious groups and then says it's legal because it's not aid to religious groups," Lynn observed. "This reminds me of 'newspeak' from George Orwell's 1984. No one should be fooled."

The Community Solutions Act could also lead to the religious indoctrination of beneficiaries, critics insist. While the bill says federal grants are not to be used for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization," no mechanisms are created to monitor or enforce the mandate.

Just as importantly, religious programs that receive public funds would still be able to promote their religious beliefs and encourage people in need to participate in religious exercises, so long as private dollars pay for those efforts. The result could lead to families being pressured and coerced by religious leaders at publicly subsidized programs.

Since the faith-based plan was introduced, proponents have frequently noted the option of "secular alternatives" for those who don't want assistance from religious groups. The Watts-Hall bill includes a provision that seemingly ensures these options.

The protection, however, is flimsy at best. According to the text of the bill, the government would be offered a "reasonable period of time" after someone raised an objection before an alternative would be made available. Accordingly, people in need could be placed in the untenable position of choosing between religious coercion or going without food, shelter or other needed services for an indefinite period of time.

This protection appears even more inadequate when one considers that these secular alternatives are not required to be easily accessible for those in need. As a result, a family may be asked to travel significant distances in order to receive aid, placing yet another burden on beneficiaries.

Moreover, supporters of the measure have yet to respond to questions about funding. Bush and other advocates have insisted that no "new money" will be spent on faith-based efforts. But, if non-religious options are to be made available for beneficiaries, the government would presumably have to spend twice as much money one grant for faith-based services, another for secular services. With no additional funding for these programs, critics of the plan note that it would be impossible to fund both secular and religious services.

Questions surrounding job discrimination may ultimately be the most difficult hurdle the legislation will face. As opponents of the faith-based initiative have been arguing since the Bush initiative was introduced in January, religious groups will be legally permitted to discriminate in hiring despite receiving federal tax dollars.

It is a political problem for the initiative's backers because very few members of Congress are prepared to vote in favor of a measure that allows, and even subsidizes, discrimination in federal welfare programs.

Yet the Community Solutions Act in some ways worsens existing concerns over job bias. The Watts-Hall bill includes a provision that says a religious group can "require that its employees adhere to the religious practices of the organization" in order to "aid in the preservation of its religious character."

The practical result of this language is that publicly funded religious employers could discriminate not only on religious grounds, but also on any characteristic that their group might find religiously relevant, including sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy status, family status and even gender.

Concerns about discrimination appear to be resonating with the general public. One recent public opinion poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that people generally approved of public support for ministries to provide social services, but details of the Bush plan drew strong opposition. An overwhelming 78 percent of Americans said government-funded religious groups should not be able to hire only people who share their beliefs to staff their programs. (For more on the Pew Forum poll, see "AU Bulletin," page 3.)

These concerns and others were brought to the attention of members of Congress when a broad coalition of religious, education, labor, civil liberties and health advocacy groups urged the U.S. House to reject the Community Solutions Act. The coalition, consisting of two dozen organizations representing millions of Americans, said the "charitable choice" provisions of the bill must be rejected.

In an April 11 letter to House members, the groups said, "'Charitable choice' is an unconstitutional and dangerous proposal that will harm religion, authorize government-fundeddiscrimination, undermine the accountability of taxpayer dollars, foster litigation against state and local governments and violate the personal rights of Americans seeking help."

The organizations, led by Americans United, have joined forces under the umbrella of the "Coalition Against Religious Discrimination" to fight the Bush scheme. Participants range from the National Education Association, the American Association of University Women and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to the Baptist Joint Committee, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Catholics for a Free Choice.

Despite the defects, criticism and legal pitfalls, the faith-based initiative remains a top White House and congressional priority. Administration officials say the president has a half dozen key priorities the White House calls them the "Big Six" that he wants his administration to focus on over the next four years. The faith-based initiative holds a spot on the list.

Republicans in Congress are also giving the plan a big push. The House GOP leadership reserves its early numerical slots, H.R. 1 through H.R. 10, for legislation deemed to be the main concerns. The Community Solutions Act's H.R. 7 ranking shows its important billing.

Watts in particular seems a determined crusader on this issue. The former University of Oklahoma football player has taken a leading role in advocating charitable choice for several years and has quickly become one of the House's staunchest allies of the Religious Right. Although TV preacher Pat Robertson has distanced himself from the Bush faith-based initiative, he and his Christian Coalition have repeatedly shown appreciation for Watts' work. Coalition scorecards consistently award him 100 percent scores and he has addressed the Coalition's annual "Road to Victory" conferences.

As a result, Watts can be expected to be a key player in the attempt to win political support for the Bush initiative from both the Religious Right and from African-American religious leaders who know the Oklahoma representative as the only black Republican in Congress. So far, however, the Bush team's attempt to woo both the Religious Right and black clergy has resulted in a political debacle.

In March, hostility erupted between the two groups. The Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American pastor from Boston, came to the nation's capital to meet with Bush and discuss points of agreement. Rivers hosted a March 19 press conference to profess his support for the plan and came close to accusing Religious Right leaders of racism for failing to back the initiative. He insisted that it was not a coincidence that TV preachers such as Robertson and Jerry Falwell were critical of the Bush proposal after DiIulio reached out to African-American churches.

"The white fundamentalists thought the faith-based office would finance their sectarian programs, which primarily serve upper middle-class suburbanites, and they are infuriated because John DiIulio wants resources to go to people who are poor, black and brown," Rivers told The Boston Globe.

Rivers' comments sparked outrage from the Rev. Richard Land, a top Religious Right leader and chief Washington lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Land, a staunch Bush ally on most issues, told the Globe that the remarks proved to him that "bigots come in all stripes and all colors and all professions."

The conflict was exacerbated when Land told beliefnet.com, a religion news website, that he wouldn't touch government funds "with a 10-foot pole." That raised the ire of Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and an African-American conservative, who quickly fired back.

"Many of the religious leaders who say they wouldn't touch government money with a 10-foot pole probably wouldn't touch some of the people who need these services with a 10-foot pole either," Woodson said in the Wall Street Journal.

Rivers' support for the Bush proposal also sparked controversy when some African-American religious groups felt their participation in a White House meeting was mischaracterized as support for the faith-based initiative.

Representatives of the Congress of National Black Churches (CNBC), who joined Rivers for a meeting with Bush, were described in some media accounts as being in favor of Bush's program. The group issued a press release to explain that it has not endorsed the initiative.

There is ample evidence that the African-American community, as well as some of its leaders, remain divided about the wisdom of the faith-based initiative. One recent poll released at the African American Republican Leadership Summit found that 58 percent of black voters approve of the plan in general, but that support plummets to 39 percent when respondents find out that the plan is associated with Bush and the GOP.

The faith-based effort has also been divisive within the Religious Right. While Land and Falwell have expressed doubts, Robertson has gone so far as to describe the initiative as a "Pandora's box" and insist that no money go to the Hare Krishnas, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Church of Scientology.

For his part, Falwell has had some trouble figuring out whose side he's on. Initially, he said he was concerned about groups he dislikes getting aid, concluding that "Islam should be out the door before they knock." But Falwell changed course March 22, concluding that he "fully supports" the program and is "excited" to see charitable choice implemented according to Bush's vision.

Falwell isn't the only right-winger rallying to support Bush's program. Dozens of Religious Right groups and leaders joined April 11 to announce the creation of the Coalition for Compassion, an alliance that will aggressively push for public funding of religious service providers.

At a press event in Washington, which featured comments from DiIulio, group leaders made an effort to show that the conservative religious community supports the faith-based plan in principle.

"There is no motivation like divine love...to change a life at its very center," said group chairwoman Connie Marshner, a spokesperson for right-wing strategist Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation.

The Coalition for Compassion features several Religious Right groups, including Gary Bauer's American Values, Concerned Women for America, the Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition.

With or without the Religious Right's help, the faith-based initiative is moving forward. If it is ever implemented, the initiative will change the political and public policy landscape in a variety of ways.

In 1996 Congress added charitable choice to the Welfare Reform Act. Since then, three other programs have included the provision. Proponents of the new drive to increase faith-based funding point out that there are few horror stories after nearly five years of charitable choice being on the books.

Critics of the plan, however, note that there have been a number of serious controversies generated by church-state partnerships that have not garnered national attention (see "Model For Disaster," April 2001 Church & State). More importantly, states have been slow to implement the policy, limiting the opportunities for failures.

A new 50-state analysis of faith-based funding published by the Associated Press supports this assertion, noting that nearly two-thirds of states haven't given religious groups any money to provide social services since the law was changed in 1996. In addition to the 31 states and the District of Columbia that have not awarded a single government contract to a faith-based service provider, an additional 14 states have used charitable choice sparingly, offering only a handful of contracts. Meanwhile, only five states Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Texas have adopted the programs enthusiastically, in some cases spending millions of dollars in grants for faith-based work.

Lingering skepticism about government-funded religion has taken its toll on the Bush administration, which appears to have been unprepared for the intense criticism generated from across the political and religious spectrum.

In an attempt to bolster some popular support for his wounded Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the president has decided to fall back on the one area he is most familiar with baseball.

Bush has asked his faith-based office to help run a new program that will host tee-ball games for young children on the South Lawn of the White House. Bush temporarily put aside domestic and foreign policy responsibilities March 29 to discuss a topic near to his heart.

"We've got a pretty good-size backyard here," Bush said, adding, "In a small way, maybe we can help to preserve the best of baseball right here in the house that Washington built." (History is not Bush's best subject; George Washington lived in executive mansions in New York and Philadelphia, and was not responsible for building the White House.)

As part of the effort to revitalize baseball, the president said he will invite Little League teams to play monthly games. Cabinet officials and other high-ranking White House aides, Bush said, will coach the kids.

Ultimately, however, the success of the faith-based initiative will not hinge on the popularity of the national pastime or the success of the president's faith-based office in organizing tee-ball games. Rather, its fate will be sealed by attempts to answer lingering questions over the plan's legality.

Bush seems aware of the First Amendment difficulties his proposal faces, and is apparently frustrated that the law may get in the way of his drive for government-funded religion.

In an April 3 speech to a Boys & Girls Club in Wilmington, Del., Bush said, "How sad it would be if our system said, 'you can't have tutorials in churches because of the legal process.'"

AU's Lynn was surprised by Bush's remarks.

"The 'legal process' that stands in Bush's way is the same Constitution he swore to uphold," Lynn concluded. "Our Constitution should not be looked at by the president or anyone else as an obstacle to effective public policy. Rather than trying to work around the law, Bush would be better off trying to help families in need with a plan that is fully consistent with the First Amendment."