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Breaking Faith With Constitution


Stebbins Jefferson

Events taking place in Washington deserve our full attention.

No, not the sexual intrigue involving the despicable male politician and the much-younger female intern. Of greater concern and more permanent consequence to America's welfare is the clear and present danger that the faith-based initiative legislation poses to the separation of church and state. By a vote Thursday of 223-198, the House passed its version of the initiative bill. If the Senate passes it, the president has promised to sign it. That's a scary thought, because no amount of amendments or other compromises can eliminate the reality that once religious organizations become the government's social service agencies of choice, the constitutional requirement that secular government not sponsor religious work will be erased.

During the campaign, candidate Bush pledged to "rally the armies of compassion" to combat social ills. As president, he seeks to keep that promise at the expense of freedom of religion. For be not deceived, when one's religion dictates whether one will be hired as a counselor, caseworker or for some other social-service job, freedom of religion no longer will exist in America.

The motivation for this initiative is suspect primarily because many churches already get federal money to provide social services. Such religious groups, however, normally establish a separate, not-for-profit secular organization to do the work. Though church officials may head such organizations, all federal, state and local laws banning discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference must be respected, as is appropriate when taxpayers' money is being spent.

The proposed initiative, however, would dispense federal money to church groups doing social work "without impairing the religious character of the organization." That carefully crafted phrase suggests that civil rights laws forbidding discrimination in hiring would not apply to faith-based groups. They would be free to display symbols - crucifixes or Santeria icons - of their faith. They could proselytize to the people for whom they're providing services if their clients do not object.

So long as the emphasis is on crucifixes, not Santeria icons or figures of Buddha, many taxpayers would have no problem with federal money being used to recruit souls for Christ. That mentality probably influenced the White House to enter into covert discussions with the Salvation Army. According to one of the organization's internal reports, which The Washington Post disclosed, the army thought the White House had made "a firm commitment" to change Office of Management and Budget rules so as to exempt religious-based groups from state and local laws that prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians. In exchange for this little side deal, the Salvation Army was prepared to spend about $100,000 a month lobbying for President Bush's initiative. The Salvation Army already receives $280 million in government money.

If the initiative becomes law, religious groups of all faiths can compete for the $6.4 billion to be spent by 2010. Consider also that if a successful record of past social-service work is a criterion for receiving money, Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam should be near the head of the line. The Nation of Islam has had major success rescuing addicts, with a lower recidivism rate than other drug programs. Though many taxpayers would not be comfortable with such an investment of their money, the government would have no legal right to refuse.

So we need to ask ourselves why we are headed down such a treacherous path, leaving taxpayers vulnerable to exploitation by any group, scrupulous or unscrupulous, claiming to be "faith-based." Could it be that the goal is not so much to rescue the troubled as it is to use government money to reward the churchgoing voters whom polls show voted for Mr. Bush 2-to-1 in November?

We should hope not. Freedom of religion is too high a price to pay to ensure that they give him their votes in 2004.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

Originally published in The Palm Beach Post on Saturday, July 21, 2001.


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