White House Secretly Assured Religious Right That Faith-based Funding Plan Will Allow Religious Groups To Proselytize

Bush Administration's 'Stealth' Strategy Is 'Scandalous Duplicity,' Charges AU's Lynn

As the Bush administration prepares to release a report on "barriers" faith-based groups face in obtaining federal grants, Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned that lifting of safeguards could have dire consequences.

The White House report, titled "Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Faith-Based and Community Organizations' Participation in Federal Social Service Programs," is scheduled for release tomorrow at the Brookings Institution.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said that if the White House plan is reckless, it could raise serious legal questions and threaten the safety of families and children in need.

"Bush tried deregulation in Texas, and kids got hurt," said AU's Lynn. "It would be an unmitigated disaster if he tries this at the national level. Nobody likes government red tape, but there are many crucial regulatory safeguards that must not be abandoned.

"When Bush talks about removing 'barriers,' I hope he's not referring to the wall that separates church and state," Lynn added. "While the administration views the First Amendment as a burdensome detail, Bush should remember that these constitutional safeguards have served this nation well for over 200 years."

Americans United pointed to three critical areas that need to be addressed as the administration releases its report:

* Will the lifting of regulations hurt those who receive assistance? As governor of Texas, Bush lifted a series of regulations placed on religious groups that provide social services. Bush's changes fully exempted faith-based drug treatment centers and children's homes, for example, from the health, safety, accountability and quality of care guidelines required of Texas' secular service providers.

As a consequence, religious groups could be accredited by a private religious agency instead of the state. According to a report prepared by the Texas Freedom Network, these alternatively-accredited facilities had a rate of abuse and neglect claims that was 50 times higher than that of state-licensed facilities.

In one instance, Roloff Homes, a religiously run home for troubled teens, came to Texas after regulations were lifted. Despite a history of abusing children, Roloff was accredited privately and began "treating" troubled youths. Within six months of opening its doors, teens were being abused again at the home, leading to multiple criminal charges being filed against Roloff employees (The Washington Post, May 5, 2000).

Ironically, as the White House is considering lifting regulations at the federal level, the Texas legislature, recognizing the unqualified failure of the Bush approach, allowed the religious exemption policy to expire this year.

* Does the plan violate the Constitution? The president's "faith-based" initiative, since its introduction, has raised serious legal issues. Under the First Amendment, American citizens are free to decide on their own whether or not to support religious ministries, and the government must remain neutral on the issue. Bush's faith-based plan ignores this time-tested constitutional principle by throwing the massive weight of the federal government in support of religious groups.

Also, if the Bush approach favors religious groups over secular groups, it would be unconstitutional. By exempting faith-based organizations from regulations that continue to apply to non-religious groups, the president's plan would favor religion over irreligion, which inherently is in conflict with the First Amendment.

* Will the Bush plan undercut the nation's civil rights laws? Current law permits religious organizations to make employment decisions based on religious affiliation or compliance with religious teachings in their privately funded activities. Bush's 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.

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.

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.