Constitutionally Safe, Religiously Dangerous?

There are constitutionally safe ways for the federal government to aid faith-based groups. But at religion's expense?

President Bush speaks eloquently of the tremendously constructive role religion has played in American society throughout our history. He has made it clear that his "compassionate conservatism" intends to recognize and to encourage religion's vital role in society.

Last month, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Bush inspired the crowd with his fervent endorsement of our nation's religious faith. The remarks that elicited the most enthusiastic response were these: "My administration will put the federal government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion. Our plan will not favor religious institutions over non-religious institutions. As president, I'm interested in what is constitutional, and I'm interested in what works. The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) recently praised Bush's idea of promoting faith-based organizations. President Bush, Lieberman said, had "seen firsthand the extraordinarily good works these non-profits often do."

And yet the president's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program has generated significant criticism. What about the plan is so controversial? For Christian conservatives, it is this: government oversight. If the government gives funding to religious groups, then it must oversee how the money is used--and, we fear, how churches spread their message. That worry, coupled with the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups, causes many religious Americans grave reservations.

With appropriate safeguards, I believe faith-based initiative programs can be done in ways that pass constitutional muster. I further believe the resulting increase in faith-based initiatives will help many people not being reached by government programs.

So I support constitutionally safeguarded faith-based initiatives with this sobering warning to all faith-based ministries: Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries. Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry, and the hurting worth that exposure?

That is a question each church, synagogue, temple, and mosque must decide for itself. As for me and my house, I would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

However, there are ways I can see to make the initiative more acceptable to groups who intend to take the money. Under the plan, offices will be set up in five federal departments--Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Labor--to coordinate the effort. The president explained that government "will not fund religious activities, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them." The anti-religious discrimination directive is an important corrective to the hostility often displayed by government toward religious institutions.

And government cooperation in funding faith-based social services can be done in ways that abide by the Constitution. First, there must always be a secular alternative to the faith-based social service available to the eligible recipients. No one must be faced with the choice of a faith-based service or no service at all. Second, the religious activities connected with the faith-based social service must be funded by the sponsoring ministry. Government money should not fund religion. Third, any religious activity related to the faith-based social service must be voluntary for those receiving the services. Fourth, the government can't favor some religious groups over others as recipients of federal money based on anything other than their merits.

People who are tempted to find some religious groups objectionable should always remember that the government permitted to discriminate against Hare Krishnas today may very well discriminate against Baptists and Catholics tomorrow.

Even Pat Robertson's attempt to deal with his concern that so-called "fringe" religions like Hare Krishnas and the Church of Scientology would receive funding--a situation he terms "intolerable"--requires government oversight. Robertson's alternative (detailed in a USA Today op-ed on Monday) would allow government-approved faith-based charities to receive donations that would be credited against tax owed if donated for a social service ministry--as opposed to a mere tax deduction if given for an overtly religious ministry.

Under Robertson's alternative, the government would still have to discern which were merely social service ministries worthy of the tax credit, and which were religious ministries eligible only for the tax deduction. I suspect many religious people join me in finding that to be "intolerable."

Still, the problem with all of these safeguards is that they require governmental oversight. Unless you are the National Endowment for the Arts, with government money there always comes government oversight. One suggestion to reduce that problem: Voucherize the recipients of services. Then the people receiving the assistance are empowered to seek the social services program that best meets their needs--public, private, or faith-based.

However, another Bush administration faith-based initiative, contained in the president's tax program, has received comparatively little discussion, despite its potentially enormous impact. This tax reform would allow the approximately 70 million families who do not file itemized tax returns to deduct charitable contributions from their taxable income. More than $14 billion in additional charitable contributions would be generated during the first full year's implementation, according to the government. A significant proportion of those new char itable contributions would find their way into collection plates.

If the government really wants to empower the nation's "armies of compassion," then this plank in the tax reform package is a potentially revolutionary step. And since it is following the spectacularly successful American practice of government encouraging citizens to donate their own money to causes they embrace, it has none of the controversial government entanglements and church-state questions that have greeted the faith-based initiative.

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Richard Land
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