Despite intense criticism from the religious, civil liberties, civil rights, educational and social service communities, the U.S. House of Representatives voted today in favor of the White House faith-based initiative.
President Bush's effort to fund religious groups with federal tax dollars was introduced in the House as the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7) by Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Tony Hall (D-Ohio).
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has spearheaded opposition to the faith-based initiative, expressed deep disappointment in the House vote and indicated a lawsuit may be necessary if the bill becomes law.
"This bill joins church and state in unholy matrimony," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "If the Bush initiative becomes law, we'll go to court and file for divorce.
"The Constitution forbids government promotion of religion, but that's exactly what this initiative does," Lynn added. "The bill passes the collection plate to taxpayers, subsidizes discrimination and entangles religion with government. The Senate must put a stop to this misguided scheme."
Lynn noted that the House action did not come easily. Yesterday, after House leaders scheduled a floor vote on the legislation, Republican moderates balked over aspects of the bill that permit federally funded employment discrimination, sending the House into disarray and leading to a startling delay in consideration of the bill.
AU's Lynn said the bill is a disaster.
"Bush's crusade to fund religion with tax dollars is one of those rare beasts that harms everyone affected by it," observed Lynn. "It's no wonder that the initiative has come under fire from the right, left and center."
Among the bill's most serious flaws:
It undermines the nation's commitment to civil rights -- Current law permits religious organizations to make employment decisions based on religious affiliation or compliance with religious teachings in their privately funded activities. The faith-based initiative expands this principle to allow discrimination in publicly financed religious programs. As a result, religious groups would be able to receive public funds and still discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion and other characteristics the religious group might find theologically relevant, including marital status, sexual orientation or pregnancy.
The initiative harms families in need -- If this initiative becomes law, many disadvantaged Americans will be asked to go to a religious institution they may or may not agree with to obtain desperately needed public services. Once there, families may face pressure to participate in religious activities at a government-funded facility. In fact, any religious group that receives federal assistance through vouchers or other forms of so-called "indirect" aid will be permitted under this bill to engage in conversion efforts at public expense.
It overrides state and local control -- This initiative allows publicly funded religious groups the luxury of an exemption from state and local anti-discrimination laws. It also subjects city, county and state governments to new lawsuits by religious organizations that believe they were denied funding because of their "religious character." Making matters worse, this federal legislation offers no funding to state and local officials to pay for alternatives if beneficiaries object to religiously based services.
The measure ignores the rights of taxpayers -- When taxpayers are asked by the state to subsidize religious institutions they may or not believe in, it is no different from forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.
It harms religious institutions -- Public accountability requires regulation of public funds. Once religious institutions are being financed by tax dollars, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow. The plan also calls for competition between religious groups. For the first time in American history, religious groups will be encouraged to battle it out for a piece of an increasingly small government pie. Pitting houses of worship against each other in this fashion is a recipe for divisive conflict.
"This is a disastrous initiative whose time should never come," concluded Lynn. "Today's vote was an appalling assault on the nation's religious liberty and civil rights. We will do everything possible to defeat this initiative if it is considered in the Senate."
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.