Keeping an Eye on the (Post-Bush) Faith-Based Initiative

On July 1, 2008, presidential hopeful Barack Obama unveiled his plan for the revamping and retooling of the Faith-Based Initiative, that well-recognized but little-understood pet project of President George W. Bush. Coinciding with the release of a fact sheet by his campaign, Obama delivered a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, detailing his proposal and revealing a new name:

I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart–it will be a critical part of my administration.

So, a partnership rather than an initiative. Sounds promising. But centerpiece rather than fringe? Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative has been a major concern for those who work to preserve the separation of church and state. An expansion of what’s already been bloated enough, thank you, isn’t exactly a thrilling proposition. Which begs the question: is Obama’s plan actually a welcome departure from Bush’s policies? Or is it simply more of the same by any other name?

To answer the question requires understanding of the Faith-Based Initiative and exactly why it’s been so bad for the separation of church and state and for religious freedom. In fact, what Bush’s policies did was subvert a partnership between government and faith-based groups that administer social services, which had previously enjoyed a happy equilibrium (and constitutionality). Prior to the Faith-Based Initiative and some legislative provisions commonly known as “charitable choice,” faith-based groups that were awarded federal funds to provide social services had to play by a specific set of rules. These rules were designed to safeguard against unconstitutional government entanglement with religion. Specifically, they stipulated that in order to be eligible for government grants, religious groups were required to abide by the following regulations:

  1. They were required to set up a separate 501(c)3 organization to receive federal funds. This prevented federal money from being funneled directly to houses of worship, where oversight of how those dollars were being spent (i.e. for secular vs. religious purposes) would have been a tricky task.
  2. The separate 501(c)3 groups were required to provide services that were secular in nature. This means groups couldn’t use federal money to engage in sectarian religious activities, such as proselytizing.
  3. The social services administered by faith-based groups and funded by government money were required to be available indiscriminate of religion. In other words, an evangelical group couldn’t make its services available only to other evangelicals. Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others–religious and non-religious–also had to have access.
  4. Faith-based groups couldn’t discriminate on the basis of religion in their employment decisions for positions that were funded with federal money. (Note the caveat: “with federal funds.” Religious groups only had to adhere to the above regulations if they were spending government money. Where they used their own private funds they were exempt from these rules.)

Then came charitable choice–first enacted in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act–the main proponent of which was none other than John Ashcroft (then a U.S. Senator). This provision attempted to circumvent the above regulations in a handful of authorizing legislation for federal social services such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. When President Bush came into office he expanded charitable choice through executive order to nearly all federal social service programs, steamrolling over civil rights and religious liberty safeguards by allowing direct federal funding of houses of worship and by allowing faith-based groups to discriminate on the basis of religion using federal dollars. Constitutional adherents have been fighting to return things to the way they were ever since.

So how does Obama’s plan differ from what we’ve seen since 2001? On this I’ll let Obama speak for himself:

Make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea–so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them–or against the people you hire–on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

Thus, largely undoing the damage the Faith-Based Initiative has wrought for separation of church and state, it seems Obama’s proposal would bring back most of the previous regulations and throw in some oversight to boot.

However, there are some pitfalls. Not so clear under Obama’s proposal is the question of whether federal funds would be permitted to go directly to houses of worship rather than a separate 501(c)3, thus making meaningful oversight a valid concern. Hopefully this isn’t Obama’s intent. As someone who has worked extensively with faith-based groups in the past, he should know that direct funding is not only bad for separation of church and state but also for religious liberty, threatening the integrity of houses of worship by tying their activities to the activities of the government–activities that more religious voices are speaking out against all the time.

Moreover, though Obama’s proposals are a welcome shift from what we’ve seen in the past eight years, I can’t help but wonder this: Obama appears to advocate mostly reverting to a pre-Bush working relationship between government and faith groups that provide social services. But then why the need to continue a formal office (or council, or whichever term you prefer)? We’d been doing fine without one before, regardless of what President Bush would have you believe (with all his talk of faith-based groups being at a disadvantage when competing for federal grants). And the proposed expansion of such a council is somewhat worrisome.

Of course, we have yet to see how things will pan out in the general election, let alone how our president-elect will change the way government does business with religion. For those invested in the separation of church and state and religious liberty, this is a good issue to watch.

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