October 18, 2002 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

ED101802b:  Spurning a CARE Package

President Bush's faith-based legislation, stalled in the Senate for months, is going nowhere this year. The reason given is that the proposal, by opening up federal funds to religious groups serving the poor, would create a church-state quagmire. The real reason is a growing and unprecedented contempt for the religious values that animate many private charities.

Legislation passed by the House of Representatives last year would extend the 1996 federal "charitable choice" law, which allows faith-based groups taking government money to keep control over the "practice and expression" of their beliefs and to use religion as a factor in hiring. Though charitable choice has been signed into law four times, House leaders opposed these protections in a testy partisan fight. Senate leaders, hoping to avoid controversy, introduced a compromise bill without the protections.

It didn't work. Critics now say the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act (CARE), which contains various tax incentives to boost charitable giving, will usher in a new era of employment discrimination. They want the bill amended to prevent any organization from making faith commitment a factor in employment. In other words, they want to reverse settled law.

The critics claim to be worried that social workers will be denied jobs because of theology. In truth, they're bowing to gay-rights activists, such as the Human Rights Campaign, who despise religious groups that uphold traditional Judeo-Christian views of sexuality and marriage. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is leading the amendment effort, complains that "fundamentalists won't hire gays or lesbians." Their mantra: The CARE Act will turn back the clock on civil rights.

Nonsense. No private group -- secular or religious -- can remain independent once government controls its membership and mission. That goes for Planned Parenthood as surely as it does for the Baptist Bible Club. The bill's opponents would revoke one of the great gifts of the First Amendment: an open society that honors an organization's right, through its staff and membership, to live out its deepest beliefs and ideals. No right is more essential for preserving both civic and religious freedom.

An earlier generation of political leadership understood this democratic principle. The architects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act specifically protected the hiring rights of religious entities under Title VII. Congress has extended these rights, and the Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld them. It's the opponents of the CARE Act who are trying to undo decades of federal employment laws.

They ought to spend some time with the Good Samaritans actually ministering to the nation's neediest. A study I recently conducted for the University of Pennsylvania, which surveyed faith-based groups assisting at-risk children, drives the point home: Nearly all of the ministry leaders interviewed consider the religious values of staff and volunteers vital to their work. "Kids are always watching," explained Lisa Cromartie, director of Urban Youth Ministries in Holland, Mich. "You need to be living a life that is consistent with the ideas the ministry is teaching."

Such facts supposedly become irrelevant the moment a dime of public money flows to private charities. During months of political debate, Democrats likened the hiring policies of religious organizations to the institutionalized racism of Southern shopkeepers, circa 1950. They treated some of the nation's most respected charities, such as the Salvation Army, with open hostility. Sharon Daley, the chief lobbyist for Catholic Charities, remarked that she'd never seen anything like it in her 22 years in Washington.

Unfortunately, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. -- despite being one of the chief architects of the CARE Act and an Orthodox Jew -- has declined the opportunity to lead his grumbling colleagues out of this wilderness. Though he praises the sacrificial work of the nation's charities, the senator likewise frets about "federally funded discrimination." Earlier this year he abandoned his pledge to endorse charitable choice.

The White House, however, appears to be standing firm. President Bush continually promises "to honor and not restrict" faith-based organizations that partner with government. Jim Towey, director of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, vows to oppose a bill that would strip charities of their hiring rights. Meanwhile, on Bush's orders, federal agencies such as the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services are rewriting government regulations to end the bias against religious providers in social-service funding.

It says something about our political culture when efforts to extend the compassionate reach of churches, synagogues and charitable organizations devolve into ideological skirmishing. President Bush might have to veto a "faith-based" bill that, ironically, removes protections for the faithful. That may or may not put him on the side of the angels, but it surely would put him on the side of religious liberty -- and not a moment too soon.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) and a regular commentator for National Public Radio.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire.