March 22, 2001
Bush's Faith-Based Initiative: Asking the Right Question
-- Sheila Suess Kennedy
My mother is in a Jewish nursing home. All the food is kosher. There are mezuzot (decorative boxes containing Jewish prayers) at the entrance to each room. Religious services are provided regularly. Yet the nursing home receives substantial income from Medicaid, Medicare, and other government programs.
My husband has undergone cardiac procedures at a local hospital, where crucifixes hang in every room, prayers are delivered over the public-address system three times each day, and clergy make rounds to tend to patients' nonphysical needs. The hospital, too, depends on government funding.
In communities throughout America, church groups provide the poor with food, clothing, and shelter in cooperation with township and county officials. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and numerous other religious organizations have provided government services for decades.
So what, exactly, is new or different about President Bush's much-ballyhooed "faith-based" initiative? At least three things:
First, religious organizations would be permitted to engage in employment discrimination based upon religious affiliation and doctrine, even in jobs funded by government dollars. If the religion teaches that women are to be subordinated or gays abominated, employment decisions can be based upon those beliefs.
Second, short of outright proselytizing, religious doctrine can infuse the programming. Currently, "faith based" refers primarily to those whose faith compels them to provide essentially secular services. The Bush initiative expressly allows for religion-based programming.
Third, government funds will be provided directly to religious organizations. Previously, the law (with some exceptions) required religious institutions to establish semi-independent social-service affiliates as a means of maintaining some distance between church and state. Now, the government is willing to contract directly with churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Bush's plan is modeled after the "Charitable Choice" provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The intent of Charitable Choice was to ensure a level playing field for religious organizations that do business with the government - a concern prompted by scattered stories of heavy-handed government officials demanding that faith-based groups remove all traces of faith from their endeavors.
Despite the relative rarity of such problems, they were cited as justification for the legislation, as was the often repeated assertion that faith-infused programs are more effective than secular ones. While there is anecdotal support for this assertion, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." Currently there simply is no empirical data supporting - or rebutting, for that matter - the argument that religious programs do a better job.
Expanding the use of religious organizations to provide government services raises a number of questions. How will the government monitor performance without intruding on the religious character of smaller organizations? How will grass-roots organizations absorb the added costs of doing business with the government? Will the new approach pass constitutional muster? Will congregations that participate thereby blur or lose their distinctively religious character?
Will new programs truly be extended to all religious bidders, as the president insists? Will elected officials really spend tax dollars to buy prison services from the Nation of Islam or homeless shelters from the Church of Scientology?
Public policy is ill-served when issues are mischaracterized. The question is not, as the president suggests, whether the government should cooperate with faith communities - it always has and, presuming the continuing vitality of both the religious sector and the equal protection doctrine, it always will. Instead, Bush's initiatives raise even more nuanced and difficult questions: is it fair (or constitutional) to use public dollars to fund jobs available only to people who can pass a religious test? Will the flow of government funds to congregations undermine the hard-won interreligious civility fostered by the separation of church and state? Will competition for tax dollars become competition for the state's imprimatur?
There is a saying among lawyers: the one who frames the issue wins the debate. If we allow spin-doctors to frame Charitable Choice not as a reexamination of long-term practices and rules and instead as a choice between God and the devil, this may end up being a debate that all Americans lose.
Sheila Suess Kennedy is assistant professor of law and public policy at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her latest book, To Market, To Market: Reinventing Indianapolis, co-edited with Ingrid Ritchie, will be published next month by University Press.