NYT: Faith-based groups -- Church, State and Joe Lieberman
1 Sep 2001
Church, State and Joe Lieberman
New York Times
September 1, 2001
President Bush once hoped that Congress would quickly pass his so-called faith-based initiative. The idea of providing federal subsidies for the charitable activities of religious groups was greeted enthusiastically when the White House first unveiled the plan. But now this seriously flawed legislation is in trouble. It lost support in July when it was rammed through the House in a manner that seemed offensively partisan. More recently, John DiIulio, the White House's chief adviser on the initiative, made a much-noted departure. Mr. DiIulio, a Democrat and an academic, said he wanted to spend more time with his family. But his sudden exit at this critical moment was a blow, since he gave the original proposal much of its credibility and bipartisan sheen. Ironically, it now falls to Mr. DiIulio's friend Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to either rid the bill of its most dangerous provisions or shelve it.
The recent picture of President Bush and his cabinet praying at the White House was a striking reminder of how this administration has embraced religion in public life. Mr. Bush believes, no doubt correctly, that religiously inspired social services can reach some troubled people who do not respond to other programs. The question is whether federal subsidies for such faith- based groups can exist comfortably with the constitutional ban on government involvement in religion. Last year Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Lieberman, his running mate, endorsed the principle of helping religious groups provide such services. Mr. Bush promised to work with the Democrats to create a bipartisan bill, but he has not lived up to his pledge.
It was an act of bad faith, so to speak, for the administration and House Republican leaders to refuse to remove a repugnant provision exempting recipients of government aid from state and local civil rights laws against employment discrimination affecting gays and lesbians. Their refusal made a mockery of Mr. DiIulio's promise not to use the bill to roll back civil rights protections at the bidding of some religious groups. Mr. Lieberman and Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican, have promised to delete this part of the bill in the Senate. But there are larger defects, and Mr. Lieberman needs to clarify where he stands on them.
While the House bill would bar federal subsidies for religious activities themselves, it clearly permits praying, proselytizing, religious counseling and other sectarian activities to be part of a program receiving federal funds. The only stipulation is that these activities be voluntary, and that the funding not pay for them directly. It is hard to imagine that, in practice, members of religious groups will be able to draw this fine line. Vulnerable children and others who get federally subsidized food, job assistance, after-hours school activities and the like need to receive the aid in an atmosphere entirely free of anything that could be experienced as religious coercion. The bill does not guarantee that basic freedom.
The House bill would also permit religious organizations to circumvent federal civil rights protections on employment. Workers who had been hired to deliver charitable services could be discriminated against on account of private conduct as well as religious beliefs. Groups running federally funded programs might be able to refuse to hire an applicant because he had been divorced, or fire a worker who has a child out of wedlock. Mr. Lieberman, the most influential Democratic champion of the bill in the Senate, needs to correct that.
All the problems with the bill have made many people uneasy, including some sympathetic to its basic goals. People who supported the concept of funding faith-based social services on first blush have become less enthusiastic after they contemplate government aid to religious organizations outside the American mainstream, such as the Nation of Islam or Scientology.
Mr. Lieberman has an important role to play, and also a political problem. Along with some other Democrats, he has won respect for demanding that the party not be seen as antagonistic to religion. But as a vice-presidential candidate he insensitively asserted last year that there could be no morality without religion, a statement he later retracted. Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, has expressed concern that any "faith-based" initiative respect the constitutional boundary between church and state. Other Democrats are even more skeptical. Mr. Bush and Mr. Lieberman need to listen to their concerns about respecting the core values of separating religion from government cherished by most Americans.
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