Despite serious reservations from the religious, civil rights and legal communities, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation yesterday on President Bush's faith-based initiative.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has spearheaded opposition to the initiative, criticized the measure, insisting the plan would do lasting damage to religion and government.
Committee members voted along party lines late Thursday in support of the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7), a measure sponsored by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) that mirrors the White House plan. Americans United described the initiative as misguided.
"The Judiciary Committee missed an opportunity to reject a very dangerous and divisive bill," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "On issues ranging from proselytizing families in need, to the independence of houses of worship, to federally funded employment discrimination, this initiative is a disaster."
Lynn added, "I hope, when given the opportunity, the full House does what the Judiciary Committee failed to do: Reject this misguided scheme."
AU's Lynn said that White House efforts to "fix" the faith-based plan, announced earlier this week, are woefully inadequate, and in some aspects, even more dangerous than before.
"It will take more than smoke and mirrors to improve this scheme," Lynn said. "The administration and its allies in the House have tinkered around the edges, but ignored the core fatal flaws of the initiative. No one should be fooled into thinking this plan is now palatable. In fact, in many ways, the bill is actually worse."
After months of criticism from across the religious and political spectrum, the bill stalled in Congress this month. The White House tried to get the initiative moving again by offering so-called compromises on controversial aspects of the bill, which were largely cosmetic and did not address serious concerns raised by leaders throughout the religious, civil rights and legal communities.
AU's Lynn said that controversy over employment discrimination continues to be among the most serious burdens of the faith-based plan.
"The fact that this bill allows federally funded employment discrimination is the plan's Achilles heel," Lynn said. "Supporters of this initiative haven't begun to explain why taxpayers should subsidize discrimination."
Concluded Lynn, "Despite so-called 'alterations' to the bill, a Bob Jones-style religious group, would still be able to receive tax aid to pay for a social service job, and be free to hang up a sign that says 'Jews And Catholics Need Not Apply.' A religious group can still get federal funds and discriminate based on characteristics the religious group might find relevant, including sexual orientation, marital status or pregnancy status. Until initiative supporters deal with this fatal flaw, this bill doesn't have a prayer."
AU analysis shows that the new bill takes steps in the wrong direction.
There's no more requirement of a secular alternative. The new H.R. 7 deletes the requirement that a secular alternative always be available (called "a nonreligious alternative" in the original bill.) Instead, the bill now would steer people who object to a certain group's "religious character" to another religious group that is "unobjectionable" to the person seeking help. (A Democratic amendment to restore the protection was defeated during the committee's mark-up.)
Discrimination against beneficiaries is now allowed. The new H.R. 7 actually allows discrimination against a beneficiary during the program, when the government funding comes in the form of a voucher, certificate or other forms of "indirect" aid. The original version of H.R. 7 did not allow this form of heinous discrimination. Under the new H.R. 7, a person seeking help could be told they must convert to another religion in order to receive government-funded services.
Problems with employment discrimination remain. Although the backers of charitable choice claim that they have taken out the "religious practices" discrimination in H.R. 7, the new version leaves veiled language intact that would allow for such employment discrimination based on religious practices, tenets or teachings through extension of the Title VII exemption.
The "employment practices" section of the revised H.R. 7 also contains incredibly broad, new language that would override other civil rights protections in the federal laws governing social service programs.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents members, chapters 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.