In contempt – Bush Administration support of organized religion

Conrad Goeringer

How George Bush is using the imperial presidency to promote the Faith-based initiative, circumvent Congress and establish the public funding of religion in America…

With Congress scrambling to complete its final session of 2002 and head home for a round of last minute campaigning, the fate of legislation once considered an important part of President Bush’s faith-based initiative remains uncertain.

That is not stopping Bush, however, from using presidential authority and the intricacies of the federal bureaucracy from funneling billions of dollars to religion-tainted social service programs. The White House is fully engaged in an aggressive program to encourage churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship to apply for government grants. Bush has also expanded the roster of federal agencies he wants to actively court the nation’s religious community by including faith-based groups in the granting process.

It is all being done without the consent of Congress.

As of press time for this newsletter, the Senate has yet to approve CARE, the “Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act of 2002.” Supporters declared that it was the best compromise on earlier measures designed to jump-start the troubled faith-based funding program. It would, they insisted, solve nagging constitutional concerns about the use of public money to subsidize churches and other sectarian groups operating religion-laden social programs, and – more importantly – it would stand the best chance of clearing the Senate. CARE was the result of long meetings between administration officials, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and two key Senators, Democrat Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) and Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum.

“We’ve reached an agreement,” gushed Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Lieberman.

“We have a bill that we feel very good about and that we believe will have over-whelming support and that has stayed away from some flash-point issues,” declared Santorum.

Whatever the fate of CARE, though, it pales in comparison to the original lofty vision of political and religious leaders who have promoted “partnerships” between government and sectarian groups. The House passed HR 7, dubbed the “Community Solutions Act” in 2001. Sponsored by Rep. JC Watts (R-Okla.), it would have funded a range of faith-based social programs and established a network of “renewal communities” throughout the nation to commingle public money and religious outreaches. A last minute addition would have opened up budgets for several key government agencies to the tune of nearly $50 billion. It was a financial bonanza for faith-based advocates; the trouble was over in the Senate, however, where concerns were raised about discrimination by groups accepting public money and other matters related to the First Amendment.

The original Bush plan for subsidizing the faith-based initiative called for expanding “charitable choice,” a provision of the 1996 welfare reform act which permits houses of worship to compete for federal contracts in order to operate faith-based social service projects without having to surrender their religious character. Prior to this, most religious groups wishing to set up a community outreach formed a separate 501(3c) nonprofit corporation. One condition — at least on paper — for accepting government funds was that the money would be set aside only for the secular component of the charity, and not used for worship or proselytizing. The legislation had no “teeth” or enforcement mechanism, though, to ensure financial accountability and guarantee that groups would obey the ban on using money for religious promotion. Responding to critics, the Bush White House and the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives broadcast repetitive mantras insisting that the program “funded good works, not r eligion,” and liberated churches from the onerous hurdles of performing laudable community work. Capitol Hill supporters like Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts declared that faith-based programs were less costly and more effective than their secular counterparts — a claim researchers dismissed as not supported by credible research. American Atheists charged that “charitable choice” and subsequent legislative initiatives like HR 7 imposed a “Religion Tax” on Americans, forcing millions of Atheists, Freethinkers, and other nonbelievers to subsidize faith-based social programs.

Despite the 233-198 vote in the House of Representatives for the “Community Solutions Act,” opposition in the Senate proved more daunting. Legislators were asking too many questions about how the program would operate. Many were quick to point out that religious groups would be permitted to accept government funds and circumvent a plethora of anti-discrimination laws. If enacted, HR 7 would have reversed a ban in force since the FDR administration prohibiting the use of public funds in contracts where there was employment discrimination. The Watts bill gave religious groups a green light to discriminate in hiring policies and other practices on the basis of doctrine.

An Imperial Initiative?

Parallel with the legislative debate over public funding for faith-based social services has been a sustained White House effort to make the program a reality sans congressional approval and funding.

On January 28, 2001–just days after his inauguration–George Bush signed two Executive Orders creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and ordering key federal agencies to establish liaison offices with religious groups to encourage their entry into the social services sector. In terms of social policy and bypassing the system of federal checks and balances among the various branches of government, it also signaled Bush’s single-minded determination to include Congress among the “obstacles” being cleared to make way for the faith-based program.

The lavish White House ceremony seemed at odds with Bush’s own statements and claims from White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer that the initiative did not promote religion, but instead sought to confront “deep needs and real suffering” in communities. Flanking the president as he conjured his new federal office was a battery of religious leaders, including Stephen Burger of the Gospel Rescue Mission; John Busby of the Salvation Army; former Congressional representative Rev. Walter Fauntroy; Imam Hassan Qazwini, Islam Center of America; and Chuck Colson, Watergate imbroglio crook-turned-preacher whose Prison Fellowship Ministry now operates experimental “God Pods” within the Texas State penal system.

Off to the side was the intellectual architect and inspiration for Bush’s faith-based program, University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky who is on record as suggesting, “maybe the disestablishment of religion wasn’t such a good idea.

Creating a federal program with the wishful wave of a pen is only the first step, of course. The new White House Office and its new director John Dilulio needed the rudiments of an infrastructure, and the Administration’s executive branch budget covered the skeletal expenses of phones, equipment and salaries. Funding the initiative was another matter, but Bush’s second executive order guaranteed that–Congress be dammed!–approval from the Hill was not necessary in freeing up billions of dollars for use by religious groups seeking to operate faith-based social services. The various department faith-based offices were soon holding seminars, handing out money and doing all they could to involve the “faith community” in the business of applying for social service grants.

Faith-Based Rhetoric

Failing to mobilize a solid constituency on Capitol Hill for the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community initiatives, the Bush administration went on the offensive against critics of the program.

In August 2001, the White House released what amounted to an advocacy “report” grimly titled “Unlevel Playing Field.” The document examined the efforts of five federal agencies–the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, Labor and Housing and urban Development–and concluded that new strategies were called for in the effort to reach out to faith-based groups. It also insisted on an end to “barriers” to using public money to subsidize religion tainted social programs, noting that “federal officials participating in federal grant programs often seem stuck in a ‘no-aid,’ strict separationist framework.”

Another “barrier” for the White House involved exclusion of religious groups from being able to obtain public money in order to operate residencies for the elderly and disabled. Current HUD does not permit “religious organizations or ones that have religious purposes” to own such facilities if they rely on public funds, although they may “sponsor” and “initiate” such projects. The administration report criticized standards that constrained the involvement of religious groups in projects that might be “pervasively sectarian” or “too religious.”

Other parts of the advocacy report reflect its agenda to promote the faith-based initiative by ignoring the separation of church and state and instead relying on what it described as unfair treatment or discrimination against religion. Charitable Choice, that key component in the 1996 welfare reform legislation which invited houses of worship to solicit government funding was glowingly described as a legal instrument that “replaces government suspicion of religious providers with a welcoming environment by giving a ‘green light’ to expand collaboration with Government…”

Congress Refuses To Budge…

Despite the rhetorical hype and White House efforts to cast the debate over the faith-based program as one involving “fair treatment” of religious groups, Congress did not pass the initiative before the crucial Memorial Day break. The Bush administration moved ahead on another front, however, and in early September began ordering additional federal departments to simply rewrite departmental guidelines to direct more taxpayer revenue to churches and other religious groups.

Associated Press noted that the Department of Health and Human Services “will let churches, synagogues and mosques use federal money for programs infused with religion and consider religion in hiring and firing workers.”

The head of one faith-based social agency in Cleveland, Ohio declared that if a victim of domestic violence came in for assistance, “The first thing I’m going to do is pray with you. I’m now using my religious art to really minister to this person.”

There are other disturbing indicators that even without congressional approval, the use of public money to fund religion-based social programs is becoming a common practice.

* A study released by the Hudson Institute and the Center for Public Justice reflects that tax money is flowing into the coffers of religious social service groups in record amounts. Amy Sherman, a scholar at Hudson said that while it was not a new practice for houses of worship to operate social welfare programs, “What is new is that the government is helping to pay some of these bills of these organizations”

* Robust faith-based partnerships between local, state and federal agencies and religious groups exist in 15 state, and account for nearly $124 million in grants to 762 different providers.

* The new guidelines ordered by the Bush administration ignore even the wording in the compromise” legislation–CARE–and permit religious groups to receive public funding even though they may use religion and belief as a litmus test for hiring practices. Steve Wagner, director of the new faith-based liaison office at Department of Housing and Urban Development told the Washington Post that civil rights protection “creates an impediment to faith-based organizations that’s unnecessary.”

* Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has been on board with efforts to pass the CARE compromise, said that the departmental standard which gives wide latitude to churches and other houses of worship “effectively nullifies this compromise language.”

* The Post noted that new faith-based funding schemes were expanding at the Justice and Labor departments. “However, the effort is moving most dramatically at HHS (Health and Human Services) where there is new money to spend.”

* Federal policies permit taxpayer money to “trickle down” from the original recipients to small, faith-based outreach operators–“in essence,” notes the Post, “running programs to address a wide range of social problems without congressional guidance on the church vs. state issue.” In addition, churches and other houses of worship which receive government grants will not be required to establish separate corporations to track money. Robert Polito of the HHS Center predicts that his agency will be awarding over two dozen grants in coming weeks.

Our Money, Their Religion

In October, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that his department had distributed another $30 million in grants to a slew of religious organizations “to help level the playing field for faith-and-community-based” groups.

Among the recipients is Operation Blessing International, a “charity” operated by televangelist Pat Robertson. HHS awarded the group $500,000. Other recipients include the Christian Community Health Fellowship of Illinois ($1,128,330); Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico ($1 million); the Northside Ministerial Alliance of Michigan ($1 million); Mennonite Economic Development Associates of Pennsylvania ($1 million); and the National Center for Faith Based Initiative in Florida ($700,000).

The award to Robertson has raised more than a few eyebrows. The Christian Coalition founder was skeptical of the original Bush faith-based initiative, not because it imposed a “Religion Tax” or might violate the First Amendment separation of church and state, but rather over the prospect of it burdening religious groups with excessive regulations and government intrusion. In recent months, though, Robertson has been softening his original stance, even praising Bush for believing that “God and government can work together to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) profiled the Bush faith-based program initiative in a May 13 broadcast featuring Jim Towey, the man who succeeded John Dilulio as head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Towey acknowledged that many religious groups might still fear that with government would come oversight and accountability regulations.

“But Towey says, for groups of faith who want to compete for federal funds, they are entitled to a level playing field,” reported CBN staffer Melissa Charbonneau.

Towey said that for those seeking public money to operate religion-saturated social programs, “We should be congratulating them and be thankful instead of putting barriers in their way. We can do this while respecting the Constitution.”

For the more cynical, giving tax money to Operation Blessing may be perceived as the administrations way of rewarding a key supporter of George W. Bush in the heated days of the primary elections leading up to November 2000. Religious right leaders were skeptical that Bush passed their theo-political litmus test for doctrinal purity, especially on issues like abortion. It was Robertson who mobilized armies of evangelicals in key Southern states, thus guaranteeing Bush–described as a “close friend”–a lock on the GOP nomination.

And Operation Blessing may show that oversight is indeed needed when it comes to distributing money to faith-based service providers. During the mid-1990’s, the charity was tarred by allegations that staffers spent too much time proselytizing relief recipients in ravaged Rwanda, and that planes belonging to Operation Blessing were used to ferry mining equipment to a private Robertson diamond and gold-minding operation.

Robertson’s flip-flop on the faith-based initiative has even some religious allies worried, like columnist Cal Thomas. He noted that until recently, Robertson had criticized the Bush program as a potential “Pandora’s box” that would “make religious charities dependent on government and even finance cults that ‘brainwash’ people.”

Noting Robertson’s new eagerness for the program, Thomas asked: “Is this the Lord moving in mysterious ways, or is it temptation from the other guy?”

“Government should not decide who deserves funding and who does not,” admitted Thomas. “That is endorsement of one religion or religions over others. Furthermore, the day will come when religious groups will be required to remain silent about their beliefs if they want to continue receiving government checks.”

That scenario may not prove true, however. If anything, government and the whole faith-based initiative–with or without the support of Congress–is in full swing, tapping abundant sources of public funding and making sure that religious groups generously mix their spiritual message with a meal, a bed for the night, a job referral or training in a skill. Government is promoting religion, and we are paying for it.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Atheists Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group