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Faith-Based Social Services

Copyright © 2001, 2002 by David E. Ross

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

U. S. Constitution, Amendment I

In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he declared that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build "a wall of separation between Church and State."

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 281 (A. Libscomb ed., 1904).

No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions …

U. S. Supreme Court, Everson vs Board of Education

The course of constitutional neutrality … is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored …

U. S. Supreme Court, Walz vs Tax Commission of City of New York

President Bush proposes to give the taxpayers' money to religious organizations to provide social services. While the specific services have not yet been determined, they could include such things as temporary refuge for battered spouses, meals for elderly shut-ins, job counseling for the unemployed, arranging foster homes for abused children, and providing shelters for the homeless. Many religious organizations already provide these services through donated funds and volunteer workers. The President, however, now proposes to give those organizations money to provide such services under various federal programs.

There is widespread concern that funding the services of religious organizations can too easily become a federal subsidy for religion. Further, expanding the role of religious organizations in supporting society's most vulnerable members could also result in government-sponsored expansion of those organizations' influence to the detriment of religious diversity and freedom. Among organizations concerned about religious freedom, People for the American Way, Americans United, and the Anti-Defamation League have expressed strong reservations about this plan to involve government with religion and how that might erode Jefferson's wall.

This concern is quite justified, as evidenced by the disclosure of plans by President Bush to exempt faith-based social services from anti-discrimination laws that apply to all other recipients of taxpayer funds. Even after that premature disclosure caused Bush to backtrack, his administration still defended dogma-based discrimination by providers of faith-based social services.

The real question, however, is: What is necessary if the federal government funds faith-based social services while still upholding the First Amendment?

When first announcing his initiative for faith-based social services, President Bush asserted that this could be done without the government funding religion. For this to happen, the enabling legislation should include the following:

Bush adviser Stephen Goldsmith, who is setting up the "faith-based initiative" to enlist charities as partners with government, said on CBS' Face the Nation that the programs would not proselytize or tilt the balance in taking responsibility for helping people in the direction of religious providers.

Associated Press, 4 Feb 01
[reported by Yahoo News]

Besides trying to allay concerns about taxpayer money going into religious organizations, President Bush also asserts that his proposal for faith-based social services would not result in government endorsement or sponsorship of religion. Any law that makes these assertions into reality must address the following:

Obviously, the requirement to ensure proper spending of government funds for faith-based social services might interfere with a religion's internal financial operations. The use of taxpayers' funds — collected from individuals of all faiths and from individuals of no faith at all — by religious organizations to operate social services programs will also require placing the needs of the recipients of those services ahead of a religion's own dogma. Perhaps, if President Bush's proposal can be made to comply with the First Amendment, religious organizations will find the result unpalatable. That would merely be a consequence of living in a society of diverse beliefs and the need to respect that diversity.

Another View

In response to an article in the Los Angeles Times about the Church of the National Knights — including cross burnings conducted by the church and its asserted ties to the KKK — the following appeared in that newspaper's "Letters to the Editor" on 5 September 2001:

Funds for Hate Groups?

Re "A Separation of Church and Hate," Sept. 1: As I read this article about the Church of the National Knights in Osceola, Ind., and the damage this church is doing to its neighbors' peace of mind and property values, I couldn't help wondering if this faith-based organization would be eligible for federal tax dollars to provide social services under President Bush's proposal.

I would be very much opposed to my tax dollar going to the Church of the National Knights, but if the federal government uses tax dollars to fund faith-based organizations and state and federal prohibitions against discrimination are waived for sectarian groups, what would prevent these hatemongers and followers of Hitler from receiving federal funds?

Jay Stevens
Long Beach

Salvation Army Gives a Lump of Coal to Gays

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, 23 November 2001

An example of what to expect with a national program of faith-based social services can be seen in an example from Los Angeles. The city subsidizes the Salvation Army — a religious organization — with $2,000,000 per year to provide services to the city's poor.

When the western region of the Salvation Army announced in November 2001 that, under a new national policy of decentralizing employee benefits programs, it would begin offering health benefits to domestic partners of its employees, the national organization suddenly reversed its new policy because this would mean health benefits for gay partners. However, municipal ordinances in the city of Los Angeles require that its contractors do indeed provide benefits to the domestic partners of their employees. As a result of the policy reversal, the city is now likely to withhold its subsidy.

The issue illustrates the conflicts that arise when government and religion become involved in each other's affairs. The Salvation Army has the right to operate within its own religious dogma. However, the taxpayers of Los Angeles have the right — and perhaps the obligation — to deny funding for promoting a dogma that discriminates against some of those taxpayers.

By the way, the mission statement of the Salvation Army — as found on its own Web site — reads:

The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Capt. Kenneth Hodder, general secretary for the Salvation Army in southern California, says this only applies to those helped by his organization, not to those employed by it.

You might not believe in equal rights for gays, but discrimination based on religious dogma can victimize anyone, not merely gays. What about a religion that believes women should be subservient to men? Would they allow women to be managers and supervisors in their social services? Would a church whose dogma teaches that salvation is found only through Christ hire a Moslem to operate a day-care program for homeless children?

Taxes collected from individuals of all religious beliefs must not be used to support discrimination fostered by any belief. That is why exemptions from state and local anti-discrimination laws for federal aid to faith-based social services — exemptions proposed by President Bush and several Republican congressmen — are wrong.

Finding Common Ground

This is the title of a report containing 29 recommendations from the Working Group on Human Needs and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This report is an attempt by leaders in social service (both religious and non-sectarian), social action, human relations, and civil liberties to present a consensus on how faith-based social services might be implemented in a manner that respects the beliefs of all.

This just will not work! The Working Group had serious difficulty in reaching agreement on a recommendation on discrimination. The best they could do regarding discrimination in employment in tax-funded programs was to recommend against racial discrimination. No mention is made of gender discrimination in employment. Nothing at all was recommended regarding discrimination in the provision of social services. And nothing was recommended about the applicability of state and local anti-discrimination laws.

Too often, individuals who want to act on their bigoted attitudes resort to claims of religious freedom. Thus, an employer refuses to hire gays because it's against his religion; and a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple because they are living in sin. When charged with illegal discrimination, both the employer and the landlord admit it but claim their freedom of religion should allow them to discriminate. In the end, faith-based social services will also become a means to deny social services to gays, women who work, unmarried couples, and women who have had abortions.

Last updated 9 November 2003

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