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Faith-based Fiat: unable to win approval in Congress, Bush forges ahead on controversial religion initiative through executive action.

The speaker on the podium delivered a passionate call to religious action, and the congregation responded with shouts of "amen," "oh, yes" and "preach on, brother!"

"There are people who face the struggles of illness and old age with no one to help them or pray for them," he said. "There are men and women who fight every minute of the day against terrible addictions. There are boys with no family but a gang, and teenage moms who are abandoned and alone. And then there are children who wonder if anybody loves them.... We arrest and convict dangerous criminals; yet building more prisons is no substitute for responsibility and order in our souls.

"No government policy can put hope in people's hearts or a sense of purpose in people's lives," he continued. "That is done when someone, some good soul, puts an arm around a neighbor and says, `God loves you, and I love you, and you can count on us both.'"

This plea for religiously grounded service and evangelism may sound like something that could be heard in any one of thousands of houses of worship across America any weekend, but in this case it wasn't. The speaker wasn't a clergyman, and the address wasn't a sermon. Instead, it was the president of the United States making a major public policy address and issuing his latest challenge to the constitutional separation of church and state.

On Dec. 12, speaking to over 1,000 religious and charitable leaders gathered at the Downtown Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, George W. Bush launched another major offensive in his drive to implement his controversial "faith-based" initiative. Circumventing a reluctant Congress, which has refused to enact the administration's scheme, Bush announced a sweeping package of executive actions to encourage churches and other religious groups to apply for billions in government contracts to help the disadvantaged.

Insisting that "faith-based charities work daily miracles," the president denigrated the work of public social services and called for a broadly based expansion of state partnership with religion.

"We want more and more faith-based charities to become partners in our efforts, our unyielding efforts, to change America one heart, one conscience, one soul at a time," he said.

Reiterating themes he has repeated incessantly since taking office, Bush said, "Faith-based groups will never replace government when it comes to helping those in need. Yet government must recognize the power and unique contribution of faith-based groups in every part of our country."

Bush promised that churches and other religious agencies will get government support without being "forced to change their character or compromise their mission. And I don't intend to compromise either."

"No funds will be used to directly support inherently religious activities," he said, "yet no organization that qualifies for funds will ever be forced to change its identity.... We do not want you to become carbon copies of public programs. We want you to follow your heart. We want you to follow the Word."

Although the president claimed he is only seeking "equal treatment" for religious groups, he insisted that faith-based organizations be given the special right to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring even if the programs they are running are subsidized with taxpayers' money.

Specifics of the Bush announcement included the following:

* Executive Order 13,279 requiring federal agencies to consider faith-based organizations when issuing contracts for social services and allowing those organizations to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and display icons, scriptures and other religious symbols in their publicly funded programming

* Executive Order 13,280 requiring the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up faith-based offices. (Five other departments already have such offices--Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Justice, Housing and Urban Development.)

* Directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allow religious nonprofits to apply for disaster relief

* Unveiling a booklet ("Guidance to Faith-Based and Community Organizations on Partnering with the Federal Government") intended to encourage church-state partnerships.

The president's maneuver is expected to have a dramatic impact on federal departments such as Education. On the same day as Bush's speech, Secretary of Education Rod Paige posted new guidelines ensuring that faith-based groups will be eligible for supplemental services funds under the "No Child Left Behind Act." That means churches can get tax aid to provide before- and after-school help for students in reading, language arts and math.

Reaction to the president's surprise announcement was swift.

"Bush is on a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We will explore every opportunity to challenge this in the courts. The president failed to get his controversial faith-based initiative through Congress, so now he's trying an administrative end-run."

Lynn was particularly concerned about the Bush executive order erasing part of the federal protection against religious discrimination in hiring. He noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the first order prohibiting discrimination in hiring by federal contractors in 1941. Every administration since then--both Republican and Democratic--has followed that policy or expanded upon it.

"Bush is giving his official blessing to publicly funded religious discrimination," Lynn charged. "He is rolling back all Americans' civil rights and civil liberties.... Under this scheme, taxpayers will be forced to support churches they don't believe in, and workers will be denied publicly funded jobs because they don't conform to religious dictates."

Members of Congress also expressed strong opposition to the Bush move.

U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "The federal government should encourage programs that tear down discriminatory barriers in our society, but President Bush's new policy would resurrect barriers by changing federal policy that has been in place for more than 60 years. Under the new rule, organizations can accept public funds and then refuse to employ persons because they are Jewish, Catholic, unmarried, gay or lesbian."

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) agreed.

"All Americans should find abhorrent a government policy that allows for a religious or racial litmus test when hiring with taxpayer money a person to serve soup," he said. "Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs."

Conyers also noted that the timing of the Bush step toward religious discrimination is especially unfortunate. It came at a point when U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was under fire for expressing regret that Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond failed to win election to the presidency in 1948.

Said Conyers, "Last week, Senate Majority Leader Lott shared his wish that segregationists were still in the White House. Today, President Bush takes the unprecedented step of permitting taxpayer funds to be used to discriminate in employment."

Bush, during his speech in Philadelphia, deplored Lott's comments. News media coverage focused heavily on the denunciation, effectively diverting attention from Bush's own move toward an official government policy tolerating religious bias in some government programs.

The Bush administration has used the faith-based initiative as a means to do political outreach among African-American clergy. During the November elections, James Towey, chief of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, campaigned with Republican candidates in tight races, using the lure of federal funding to attract votes.

In December, former Faith Czar John DiIulio admitted that domestic policy operations at the White House are driven largely by political considerations. In an interview published in the January issue of Esquire, he charged that the administration agenda is set by Bush political strategist Karl Rove, not policy experts. (See "Reign Of The Mayberry Machiavellis," page 7.)

Towey, a former aide to Mother Teresa, has played a key role in selling Bush's latest faith-based gambit, downplaying the constitutional implications of the move and attacking opponents of the scheme.

On National Public Radio, Towey said, "What the president's doing is making sure that faith-based groups are not eliminated from being considered to provide a federal service just because they have a religious name or because they have a mezuzah or a cross on the wall."

He charged that the initiative failed in Congress because "the debate was held hostage by some extremist groups that have a view that the public square should be sanitized of all religious influence."

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Towey accused Americans United, the NAACP, the ACLU and other opposition forces of "extremist activity."

"Their job was to disagree with everything the president said," he groused, "and they have from day one."

Towey's words apparently reflect a new administration strategy of name-calling against groups that disagree with the administration on the issue.

In a Nov. 28 appearance on NPR's "Marketplace Morning Report," he again blasted Americans United, the group that has blocked the faith-based bill in Congress.

"People like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I think they're kind of an extreme voice," he said. "They seek to sanitize the public square of all religious influence."

The White House, Towey added, supports church-state separation.

"President Bush respects the constitutional separation," Towey said. "He is trying to tear down the wall that separates the poor from effective programs."

But the reaction to the Bush faith-based directives suggests otherwise. Support for the administration maneuver came mostly from Religious Right leaders who hold church-state separation in contempt.

TV preacher and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson praised the initiative on his Dec. 12 "700 Club" broadcast, asserting, "You know that so-called wall is a mythical thing. It has never really existed and shouldn't exist. These churches in the inner cities are doing a wonderful job helping the poor.... And there is no reason in the world why everything that is distributed to the poor has to he through some inefficient government agency which may take as much as 70, 75 percent for administrative overhead.... The president is making a bold stroke. I think for any religious organization to give up its religious distinctives in order to get a little bit of money is a mistake, but this will not require that."

The Family Research Council's Ken Connor also praised the administration, saying, "President Bush has demonstrated true leadership on empowering faith-based charities."

The Heritage Foundation's Joe Loconte joined the chorus.

"It's a bold move," he said, "in that [Bush is] not going to allow the extremists--the left-wing extremists in the Senate, especially--to derail the faith initiative. That's a good sign."

Right-wing journalist and author Marvin Olasky, who helped Bush develop his faith-based scheme, praised the latest step, but said it did not go far enough.

"This is not the whole thing--it's the first drive of the second half and it's a touchdown," Olasky told The Washington Post.

Despite their enthusiasm for Bush, Religious Right leaders remain leery of the government controls that might accompany government funds.

Southern Baptist Convention lobbyist Richard Land, an ultra-conservative, supported the administration's approach but advised caution.

"Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries," he told Baptist Press. "Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry and the hurting worth that exposure?"

The Family Research Council's Connor warned, "There is a danger ... that faith-based groups could become dependent on government funds and tempted to dilute their doctrines in exchange for federal dollars."

The Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition worried that the new directives might require publicly funded religious groups to hire gay people.

In a Dec. 12 statement, TVC promised "to obtain copies of these orders to see if they protect religious groups from being forced to hire homosexuals, transgenders, or other individuals whose behaviors and beliefs may violate the policies of these religious groups. If no protections are in place for religious freedom or association, many religious organizations will refuse to apply for federal dollars."

The official Bush administration line on that question remained somewhat murky. In the "Guidance" distributed by the White House faith-based office, religious leaders were told that "in most circumstances" publicly funded religious groups can make hiring decisions on religious grounds.

But the Guidance also warned that "certain Federal laws and regulations, as well as State and local laws, may place conditions on the receipt of government funds." Citing the example of state and local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the document recommends that religious groups consult a lawyer to find out what rights they might have under the Constitution or federal statutes.

Other Guidance provisions that may trouble some religious leaders require faith-based agencies to separate--in time and place--all religious worship, instruction and proselytization from the government-funded service offered. The Guidance also limits religious counseling.

"If someone asks you about your personal faith while you are providing a government-funded service," the document advises, "you may answer briefly. But if you wish to have a longer discussion on matters of faith, you should set up a time to speak with that person later."

While few observers think these rules will be enforced by the religion-obsessed Bush administration, the mere specter of government intervention in delicate matters of faith may suppress clergy interest in participating.

Issues such as these are likely to come up in Congress when it returns for its next session in January. U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has vowed to introduce faith-based legislation in the Senate, and White House allies are certain to do so in the House as well.

Americans United's Lynn urges all people who are concerned about these issues to contact their congressional representatives.

"Tell them to vote no on any faith-based measure that would fund religious discrimination or undermine church-state separation," he said.
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Author:Conn, Joseph L.
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:2273
Previous Article:Evolution foes removed from Nebraska education board. (Around The States).
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