Washington Congress is treading on very dangerous ground as it considers President Bush's proposal for federal financing of religious-sponsored social services programs. This is no ordinary piece of legislation. It raises serious questions about church-state relations in this country.
Everyone in this debate over Bush's faith-based initiative recognizes that many churches, temples and mosques provide enormously valuable assistance to the needy in their neighborhoods, as do millions of private individuals who see good works as a religious obligation. No one doubts the motivation of the president and the co-sponsors of the bill soon to be considered by the House Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democratic Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio who want to see these efforts expanded.
But equally, I am impressed by the passion with which such opponents as Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott of Virginia and Chet Edwards of Texas argue that the risks in this legislation both to important constitutional principles and to the churches themselves outweigh its possible benefits. This is an issue too important for political gamesmanship.
The president, who highlighted this proposal in his campaign and has continued to press Congress to enact it, has muddied the debate, rather than clarified it. In speeches such as the one he gave to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, he has suggested that his bill is needed to end the practice "of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious."
No such discrimination exists. As Bush acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, federal funds already go to child care and Head Start programs housed in churches and pay for health care in Catholic, Baptist or other denominational hospitals. "In all these cases, we are funding the good works of the faithful, not faith itself," the president said. "Do the critics of this approach really want to end these programs?"
That is another red herring. No one is proposing to end those public subsidies, which amounted to $280 million a year for the Salvation Army and $2.3 billion (from all levels of government) for Catholic Charities. Rather, Bush wants to expand the range of government programs that can contract with religious organizations to include public safety, housing, job training, feeding and community development.
More important, he would allow direct payments to churches. The House bill requires that their programs not discriminate among clients on the basis of religion, that they not demand the clients participate in religious observations and that they separate the federal funds they receive from their regular church budgets.
Those are important safeguards. But they do not satisfy all the legitimate concerns that have been raised. Religious conservatives argue that by denying the faith-based programs the right to intermix their religious teachings with their work to curb spousal abuse or drug addiction, for example, the bill would eliminate the special character that makes these programs effective. On the other hand, civil libertarians fear that the prohibition on proselytizing will not be observed in practice.
Tony Hall told me the bill would be especially helpful to small groups seeking government grants, but I suspect the need to keep a separate set of books would be particularly burdensome for them.
Chet Edwards, who represents Bush's ranch community near Waco and is a devout Methodist, said his fundamental concern is that the offer of federal dollars will set off a dangerous competition among sects and churches and that the federal regulations and auditing requirements will "make our houses of worship an arm of the government." Already there are bitter disputes within the religious community over the wisdom of Bush's bill.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," Edwards said. "The separation of church and state has worked magnificently well. Our churches are filled. And their social outreach programs are great successes. The state-subsidized churches of Europe are empty. Why would we want to be like them?"
And there is another issue. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had an exemption that allowed religious institutions to give hiring preference to co-religionists. This bill would extend the privilege to faith-based social programs, even though they are supposed to avoid sectarian instruction or worship. J.C. Watts told me the bill simply preserves the 1964 exemption. But Bobby Scott asks the pertinent question: "Why should a drug counselor in one of these programs be asked her religion when any other private government contractor is barred from asking that question? This is a step backward."
These are serious issues. Congress needs to proceed with caution.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.