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 public good.
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 areas.
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 terrific."
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.
Joseph Loconte, author of "Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services," is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire