How Separate Must Church and State Be?

Published on
by
The Philadelphia Inquirer

How Separate Must Church and State Be?

by
Barry W. Lynn

President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative has been a disaster. It has permitted taxpayer funding of religious groups that engage in rank forms of hiring discrimination, and it has failed to take seriously the issue of proselytism occurring on the taxpayer's dime.

Religious groups, of course, have the right to discriminate with their own funds. A Catholic church, for example, does not have to hire a Baptist minister as its pastor. But when tax funds are added to the mix, the rules change dramatically. A taxpayer-funded program should not be permitted to hire and fire on the basis of what people believe about God or how they choose to run their private lives.

The Bush faith-based initiative allows religiously affiliated social services to engage in this kind of job bias, and it's just plain wrong. Polls repeatedly show that the vast majority of Americans oppose such discrimination in public programs.

The Bush administration has also failed to monitor faith-based grants to ensure that religious groups don't proselytize with public funds. People should be able to get the help they need from their government without being pressured to pray or take part in someone else's religious ritual.

The administration claims it doesn't allow evangelism in these programs, but government grants have repeatedly been funneled to groups that do it, and Bush has lauded them time and again.

Speaking at a New Orleans church in 2004, the president said, "We want to fund programs that save Americans, one soul at a time." I'm sorry, Mr. President, but saving souls is the job of the religious community, not the American government. Whatever happened to the constitutional separation of church and state?

The faith-based initiative has also been mired in partisan politics. Bush has steered tax money toward religious groups that agree with his policies. One grant even went to a charity run by controversial TV preacher Pat Robertson.

David Kuo, formerly a highly placed staffer in the Bush faith-based office, admitted in his book Tempting Faith that the initiative was used in 2002 and 2004 to help Republicans win tight House and Senate elections. Special faith-based conferences were scheduled in districts where polls showed close races, and the prospect of public funding was held out to clergy who attended.

Such misuse of religion for naked partisan ends is deplorable. The hungry and the homeless need real help from the government, not political shenanigans.

Despite the disappointing Bush record, both presidential candidates have indicated they plan to continue the faith-based initiative in some form. They think the initiative should be fixed, not shut down. That won't be easy. The Constitution forbids government support for religion. Any faith-based plan must ensure that no taxpayer dollars subsidize religious indoctrination, proselytism or hiring discrimination.

Given this political reality, I believe Americans must insist that strong, clear safeguards be put in place by the next president. A wide array of religious, civic and civil liberties groups agree. The devil truly is in the details.

In a July letter to the presidential candidates, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination said the next administration "has the opportunity to restore the constitutionally required safeguards and civil rights protections that were in place for decades" and insisted that the federal government "should not subsidize workplace discrimination."

This coalition's membership ranges from the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the Anti-Defamation League, and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, to the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Education Association.

I've always believed religious groups are better off raising their own money for social programs. It frees them to include religious messages in the programs and avoids entanglement with government red tape. If they take public dollars, they must play by the same rules others do.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State 

© Copyright 2008 Philly Online, LLC

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