At Harvard And The White House

Why I Still Have Doubt About The ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the “faith-based” initiative.

Recently I debated Jim Towey, the head of the faith-based office under President George W. Bush, at Harvard Law School. Not long after that, I attended a White House briefing orchestrated by Joshua DuBois, the new head of the Obama administration’s comparable office.

Towey is now a college president in Pennsylvania, but he still puts up a strong front in defending the indefensible. He began his remarks by quoting from a press release Americans United issued the day he left his job in April of 2006.

I had said, “Jim Towey has waged an unrelenting war against church-state separation. He played a key role in using the ‘faith-based’ initiative for improper partisan purposes, and he did little or nothing to see that Americans get the social-service help they need from their government. That’s a sad legacy to leave.”

Not surprisingly, Towey took issue with that.

Towey still maintains that it is lawful and constitutional to allow religious groups to hire people on the basis of religious doctrine and belief (to fill government-funded slots). Jim also insists that his office was not involved in any partisan politics – say, by shifting conferences, complete with the lure of grant funds, to geographical areas with key congressional and gubernatorial races.

Let me just make two observations: Jim noted that a faith-based group might want to hire a custodian of the same faith because a fellow worker might just ask him one day in the hallway if he’d like to pray. The implication was that if you only hired people of the same faith, they’d be game for praying any time.

It was a curious example. First, nothing bars you from walking up to anybody and asking that question at any time or place. More importantly, it sounds an awful lot like the old “we want to hire folks we’re comfortable with” line that has been used to justify race and gender discrimination in years past.

On the partisanship claim, Jim pointed out that he and his staff visited districts and states represented by Democrats. True, but I say evidence indicates they did that to rally on behalf of Republicans hoping to replace those Democrats.

Skip ahead one week and I was at the Old Executive Office Building (next to the White House) for a day and a half of briefings on various administration programs that might involve the non-profit world, religious and secular. In attendance was a decent cross section of local and national representatives of groups with an interest in “good works.”

Also present were most of the 25 members of the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an eclectic group of mainly religious activists and service providers who serve at the pleasure of the president and run the ideological gamut, including some far to the right.

Director DuBois noted that the council, when it begins its work, will have as one of its missions helping to generate “a legal and constitutional basis for the office.” I’ve known many of these people for a very long time, and the chance that they could come up with a consensus on controversial issues such as “employment preferences” or even how to separate religious activities from secularly funded activities at an institution is absolutely nil.

The only way out of the morass is to have the legal and constitutional issues resolved by the Department of Justice, the White House legal office and other people charged with doing this work, with a decision made on the merits and not as some kind of political compromise.

At the briefing, a strenuous effort was made to avoid getting too deeply engaged in these most contentious issues. The silence was quite deafening, actually. I think the staff of the faith-based office and perhaps even the president himself knows that the stakes here are very high.

On one side, groups like World Vision maintain that without the power to hire only Trinitarian Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, their programs would descend into chaos. World Vision is a big charity, but one wonders how its leaders actually do anything if the prospect of hiring a Jew or a non-believer to organize an inner-city basketball program is utterly overwhelming.

If the president said they had to employ the best-qualified person, they might well stop taking government funds. I guarantee you that there would be more than enough groups willing to take the discarded grants and use them for the same purposes, sans proselytization and discrimination.

Church-state separationists argue that it is unfair to expect all the taxpayers to underwrite a program that some of them would be barred from seeking employment in because they did not pass some religious litmus test. For us, it is about fundamental fairness and equity.

Tens of billions of dollars in economic recovery money is already heading out the door through grants and contracts for which faith-based groups are eligible. It’s time to do the necessary moral mathematics and clean up the rules so that discriminatory practices of the Bush era are finally put to rest.

It is also appropriate to reiterate something DuBois said about grant-making: No religious group will get a huge “faith-based” grant simply for supporting the president or his policies.

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