DURING THIS holy season for people of the Christian faith, President Bush and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have reaffirmed their support for so-called faith-based initiatives, claiming that the "days of discriminating against religious groups" should end.
But as a deeply spiritual person who knows the injustice that religious minorities suffer, I fear that these policies will not only increase discrimination and foment division among our citizens but also erode the fundamental principle of religious freedom that lies at the heart of our country.
I am a Mennonite, part of a small Christian denomination that split from the Lutherans in the 16th century after Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation.
Mennonites have been known as "the quiet of the land" - a hardworking people committed to simple living and serving the disadvantaged of the world in service-oriented occupations. Yet some of these religious tenets, such as their literal interpretation of the commandment not to kill and their belief in adult baptism, put them at odds with the church-states of Europe. They were persecuted in Switzerland, fled to Russia in the 18th century, and joined the waves of Russian Jewish immigrants who sought religious tolerance in the United States in the 19th century.
My ancestors settled on the plains of central Kansas, where the elements were harsh and their status as an ethnic and religious minority with German roots made them suspects during the two world wars and subjected them to tragic acts we would now call hate crimes.
Despite these setbacks, the First Amendment mandate of religious freedom - that government not endorse or favor any religion - sheltered them from the untenable circumstances they had endured in Europe. Because of the religious freedom that Mennonites discovered in America, I believe we must be very careful not to dictate religion to others, just as the First Amendment prescribes - a principle the ACLU defends.
There is a grave risk that federal and state faith-based initiatives will undercut religious freedom on several fronts.
First, Governor-elect Ehrlich's plans for "a comprehensive effort to incorporate faith-based and other community organizations in state programs and initiatives to the greatest extent possible" would put at risk recipients of government services.
Religious beliefs are deeply personal and vary from person to person. Religious freedom must include the freedom to receive public services without being forced to listen to or accept another's religious beliefs.
In Texas, where then-Gov. George W. Bush led a faith-based initiative, a church-based drug rehabilitation program argued that drug addiction was a sin, not a disease, and offered prayer and Bible reading as "treatment." A Christian home for troubled teens beat and roped the children as therapy in the name of Christian discipline.
Second, faith-based initiatives curtail religious freedom by encouraging religious organizations to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
The White House recently made clear that religious groups will "be able to take faith into account in making employment decisions" - meaning that religious organizations will be able to legally discriminate in hiring using public funds.
Indeed, there are already stark examples of such discrimination, including the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur, Ga., which told a Jewish psychotherapist, Alan Yorker, that he was the most qualified candidate for a job but rejected him explicitly because he is Jewish. They further admitted that they automatically throw away applicants with Jewish names.
Finally, despite President Bush's invoking the faith of great civil rights leaders in support his proposals, there is also a serious risk that the increased flow of public funds to religious organizations will leave religious leaders less free to "speak truth to power."
Religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. propelled the civil rights movement in the last century. But when taxpayer money goes to religious organizations, they necessarily become beholden to the government and far less likely to remain the historically prophetic voice of people of faith.
I have been blessed to live in a society where I am free to practice my faith without fear of discrimination or worse. This is a primary tenet of our democracy. President Bush and Governor-elect Ehrlich should not endanger this precious right by using government money to fund religion.
Susan Goering is the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun