The debate over public funding of religious social service providers grew more intense this week when a leader of one of President Bush's favorite faith-based groups made insensitive comments during a congressional hearing.
A top official of Teen Challenge International, a fundamentalist Christian substance-abuse program that treats addicts through proselytizing, drew criticism for calling Jewish converts to Christianity "completed Jews."
John Castellani, Teen Challenge's executive director, offered the controversial comments during testimony this week to a House Government Reform subcommittee, which was examining the efficacy of religious social service providers.
During the hearing, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) asked Castellani if Teen Challenge hires non-Christians as employees. Castellani said, "No." During later questioning, Castellani was asked if the group takes non-Christians as clients. He said yes, and then boasted that some Jews who finish his Teen Challenge program become "completed Jews."
Critics of faith-based funding said the exchange spoke volumes about the dangers associated with President Bush's faith-based initiative.
"The religious intolerance that could be funded by the Bush initiative is now in plain view," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Teen Challenge has repeatedly been cited by Bush as one of his favorite faith-based groups. Yet now the group's leaders have admitted that they want to convert Jews and get public funding to do it."
The "completed Jews" phrase is sometimes used by fundamentalist Christians to refer to Jewish people who convert to Christianity. The phrase is considered offensive to many Jewish groups because it suggests Jews are "incomplete" unless they believe in the divinity of Jesus.
Teen Challenge's Castellani may have added to the controversy during an interview with the Associated Press. "In a sense, it's a compliment," he said of the "completed Jews" reference. "They're not a Christian, they're still a Jew. They've just found another part of themselves. I thought I was being kind."
Bush and supporters of his faith-based initiative have singled out the Teen Challenge program as a model of success. The president visited the group's facilities during the campaign. Recently, John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said Teen Challenge would be eligible to apply for funding under the Bush plan.
"It's outrageous that a fundamentalist group that seeks to 'complete' Jews would be eligible for federal funding through the Bush faith-based plan," Lynn concluded. "Tax aid to Teen Challenge or other groups like it would be a gross violation of the Constitution."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.