Will Faith-Based Organizations Be Able to Keep Their Faith?

Despite the support of both presidential candidates, some in the faith community remain nervous about charitable choice


George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, says he believes in direct federal support of "faith-based" organizations affiliated with churches. This is a notion that some on the religious right have long advocated, and that has long made liberals and the ACLU squirm. Thursday night, in his acceptance speech, Bush praised the idea of public funding for faith-based action. Conservative religious groups are expected to be gleeful.

So why isn't Michael Horowitz happy? Horowitz is a prominent "movement" conservative and true-blue Republican, a former top Reagan administration policy official. He's a warm friend to the evangelical right--though Jewish, Horowitz has done more than anyone else to raise public awareness of persecution of Christians in China. But Horowitz is deeply apprehensive of the sudden push to offer tax funds to faith-based organizations.

"Once government starts funding religious activity, it opens the door to government influence over religion, for political lobbying about religion and even eventually church dependence on government funds," Horowitz says. "People in the faith world should be worried about this."

"We commit ourselves to aiding and encouraging the work of charitable and faith-based organizations."
Republican platform statement

Though praise for faith-based funding has been one of the trends of the year--President Clinton and Democratic nominee Al Gore have jumped on the bandwagon, too--Horowitz is not entirely a lone voice of skepticism. The Texas Faith Network, an interdenominational group of Christian and Jewish congregations, recently said it opposes faith-based funding, cautioning that the idea "could have devastating effects on the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state." Cal Thomas, the religious right columnist, said at a Philadelphia meeting this week co-hosted by Beliefnet and The Pew Charitable Trusts, that churches should avoid public funds because "the lure and allure of politics will become a corrupting force." Melissa Rogers, a lawyer for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, writes in the new book "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?" that acceptance of tax funds "will diminish religion's prophetic witness." And Richard Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, though a supporter of faith-based funding, cautions that, "There is an obvious fear of political manipulation."

Here's a quick recap of what is at issue. Traditionally, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution has prevented public funding of most activities sponsored by religious organizations--the reason parochial schools almost never get government aid. Church-related philanthropies that did receive public grants, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services in America, had to set up independent, entirely secular divisions for this purpose. About 10 years ago, courts began to say that in some cases, taxpayer aid could flow to organizations that were more openly "faith-based" if the funds were carefully targeted toward uses that parallel secular funding, such as education or social services. Congress took this concept national in 1996, with the Clinton administration's welfare reform bill. It contained a "charitable choice" provision saying government funds could be used to support faith-based groups that would help assist welfare recipients in moving into the world of work. The big change here, from previous law, was that the faith-based organizations could acknowledge their religious character.

Since the "charitable choice" rule was enacted, it has acquired many backers along with some determined opponents. Catholic Charities fought against the welfare reform legislation itself, fearing harm to the poor, but has since become an enthusiastic supporter of the bill's faith-based funding provision. Many evangelicals and some Muslims and Jews have endorsed the idea, asserting that federal social-service funds will be more effectively spent by faith organizations. Some religious groups, especially Orthodox Jews, also see faith-based funding as the lever that will eventually cause government to pay for their schools.

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