Tired of partisan opposition in Congress, President Bush has issued
executive orders to strengthen the role of religious organizations
caring for the needy. He's now accused of making an end-run around
Congress and the Constitution. In reality, the president is taking
advantage of a growing consensus that a purely secular public
square is not possible - or desirable.
The president's orders call for the "equal treatment" of
faith-based charities competing for public funding, while insisting
that no government money be used for religious activities, such as
Bible studies or evangelism. "Government has no business endorsing
a religious creed," Bush said at a White House conference in
Philadelphia. "Yet government can and should support social
services provided by religious people."
Critics say the plan violates the separation of church and state.
They're stuck in the bad old days of official hostility to
religion: In a string of recent rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has
begun to restore fairness in the treatment of faith-based
organizations by government. The Bush White House correctly sees a
new legal relationship emerging.
In Mitchell v. Helms, the Court ruled that government-funded
computers could go to Catholic parochial schools, as long as they
were made available to public and other private schools. In the
Good News Club v. Milford, the Court said that if public schools
create an open forum, they can't exclude clubs because of their
religious speech, even speech considered evangelistic. And in
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the majority ruled that poor parents
could use publicly funded vouchers at the school of their choice -
public, private, or religious.
The Court's logic is long overdue, especially given the massive
expansion of social services in recent decades. When government
makes funds or facilities generally available, it can't exclude
religious institutions that are serving a secular purpose. Call it
the principle of equal treatment; it's precisely the argument being
made by the White House.
The president's executive orders also allow groups receiving
federal money to consider faith commitment in hiring decisions. Why
shouldn't they? Religious institutions must not be forced to
compromise their beliefs for every new job applicant. The First
Amendment means nothing if it can't protect an organization's right
to live out its deepest moral convictions consistent with the
Nevertheless, opponents claim the president's agenda would "turn
back the clock on civil rights." They're worried about social
workers, especially homosexuals, denied jobs because of theology.
It was this employment discrimination argument that ultimately
sidelined faith-based legislation in the Senate.
It's the critics, however, who want to undo more than 35 years of
civil-rights guarantees. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, with its
sweeping anti-discrimination laws, carved out exceptions for
churches, synagogues and other religious groups on the hiring
issue. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld these exemptions in a
1987 ruling, and Congress has repeatedly extended them. Most
Americans know the difference between the Motel 6 and Mother
Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.
The debate in Washington has been strangely removed from the Good
Samaritans actually ministering to the nation's poor. Based on
research I recently conducted for the University of Pennsylvania on
organizations assisting at-risk children, it seems that close
church-state cooperation is already the norm in many urban
Philadelphia's Amachi program, for example, gets government support
to mobilize church volunteers helping the children of prison
inmates. The president rightly singled out the program for praise:
Last year more than 500 mentors from 42 area churches were matched
with needy kids, a group almost completely ignored by secular
programs. "What's missing in the lives of many of these children is
the development of a value system," says Alan Appel, director
inmate services at the Philadelphia Correction Center. "So the fact
that these mentors come from a faith-based values system is
Most Americans agree. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier
this year found that even among secular people and those with weak
ties to religion, a majority believes that America would be better
off if religion's influence were on the rise. And this after a year
of religious scandal and faith-based terrorism.
There are dangers, of course, when church and state collaborate.
But sound laws and common sense can guide these partnerships, and
the needs of America's most-vulnerable groups demand we try.
Originally appeared on National Review Online