The Lynchburg News & Advance started the story this way: "A pastor and a government official sit at a table. One thinks the government should allow faith-based organizations to apply for social service federal grants and use religious beliefs as a hiring tool. The other strongly disagrees. Which is which?"
So far, this sounds like it's heading in the direction of one of those bad jokes about "a priest, a minister, and a rabbi in a boat." The story, however, was about a recent debate between James Towey, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and me at Sweet Briar College in Amherst, Va.
My wife Joanne, an expert on medical ethics, travels so much on her own that she and I rarely watch each other's performances. But this time she came along. Ironically, both Joanne and I have worked with Jim in previous jobs on roughly the same side of other issues. We were chatting amicably before starting the debate. Jim asked the activities director if he could get a videotape because the "White House likes to have an official record of these events." I had to ask, "Does this mean President Bush might watch me instead of Jay Leno some night?" Jim really wasn't too optimistic about that scenario coming to pass.
The debate was civil but robust. I said things like, "This idea was worse than taking King Kong off of Skull Island and shipping him to New York" and wrapped up by suggesting that the entire faith-based initiative "crawl back into whatever hole it came from to prevent further damage to the integrity of both religious groups and the political process."
Jim said that when this president set up the program "all of a sudden there was an uproar in our land....What got lost in the shuffle...was that President Clinton signed three different bills" with similar language in them. He said my remarks had contained "a world record for misinformation in a 15-minute speech."
You get the idea.
Much of the audience questioning was directed at what has become the single most contentious issue in this national debate: Do we give tax dollars to groups that discriminate in hiring staff? Initiative supporters argue that if the government can demand nondiscriminatory hiring, the local Catholic church will have to start ordaining women as priests.
Here's why that's a fallacious argument: Under current law, religious groups have the right to apply religious qualifications for every position, from minister to janitor. The Supreme Court has made this crystal clear. Houses of worship, funded by voluntary contributions, are free to hire and fire as they please.
But tax funding changes everything. When a religious group accepts government money to provide a secular service to the public, a strong case can be made that no discrimination should be allowed. After all, does anyone really believe that a non-believer changes the bed sheets at a homeless shelter differently than a Baptist or a Buddhist?
One of the audience members at the Sweet Briar debate was Mel White, who for many years served as Jerry Falwell's ghostwriter. Mel, who is gay and long ago broke with Falwell, asked if a religious or community group that was largely gay could get funding.
Jim mentioned that a Washington-based AIDS organization, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, already gets some government dollars. This may be true, but it's irrelevant. The Whitman-Walker Clinic states explicitly on its website that when hiring it "does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, disability, marital status or any other protected status covered by federal, state or local law." Are all of the religious groups Jim is so eager to fund willing to say the same?
No, they are not. One of the reasons that the president's faith-based initiative is floundering is because right-wing groups insisted that the bill contain a provision overriding all state and local anti-discrimination laws. Thus, religious groups wanted a federal guarantee that they could take tax money and still discriminate against gays, women, members of the "wrong" religion and anybody else they could find a Scriptural basis for avoiding.
I am a true civil libertarian. I don't want to squelch anyone's right to hold whatever religious view he or she wants. In America, people who belong to the World Church of the Creator can advocate discrimination against non-whites. Fundamentalists can preach that gay Americans deserve nothing but a chance to "transform" themselves into straight people.
Americans have the right to join any or no religious group, but no one has the right to make you support those groups through taxation. Of course, all of us see our tax dollars being used for things we don't like. Government can make all kinds of decisions about spending so long as they aren't crafted along theological lines. Government can endorse particular scientific, political and even cultural views. It cannot endorse a religious view. The First Amendment doesn't allow it. No group gets to have its theology-driven exclusionary policies funded with tax dollars that used to be in my wallet unless I hand the money to that group myself.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.