Fathers Count Constitution Doesn't

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Fathers Count Constitution Doesn't


Benen, Steve, Church & State


U.S. House Approves Church Funding Attacks Church-State Separation

For U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), the matter was crystal clear.

While engaged in a debate on the House floor with Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) over public funding of religious groups, Johnson zeroed in on the important difference between her position and that of her colleague.

"The bottom line here is -- and the gentleman from Texas said it very clearly -- you do not want churches getting the money," Johnson remarked. "I do want churches getting the money. That is the bottom line."

Johnson's blunt critique was just one of many attacks on church-state separation launched in the House of Representatives Nov. 10. Members were considering legislation, cosponsored by Johnson and Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), that would provide federal funds for programs intended to boost fathers' parenting skills and help low-income families stay intact and off welfare.

The bill, known as the "Fathers Count Act of 1999" (H.R. 3073), authorizes $150 million over six years for nonprofit groups and state agencies to assist low-income fathers improve their educational, economic and employment status.

However, the nonprofit groups that would be eligible under the measure include houses of worship and other "pervasively sectarian" groups. In fact, the legislation specifies that 75 percent of the federally funded "fatherhood grants" must go to non-governmental organizations.

Johnson, a representative regarded in the past as a Republican moderate, defended her bill as a meaningful way to help families.

"This legislation will fund projects directed at helping poor fathers meet their responsibilities by promoting marriage, improving their parenting skills, and developing their earning power," she said.

"[K]ids need dads," Johnson added. "Dads count, just like moms count."

Critics of the proposal found the matter to be much more complex.

"Fathers count, but so does the Constitution," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a press statement. "Promoting strong families is a good thing, but forcing taxpayers to support religious institutions against their will is not." Americans United and allied religious and civil liberties groups wrote House members to oppose the bill's church-state provisions.

It was exactly this point that served as the framework for an afternoon of heated debate in the Capitol. When the House took up the bill, the exchange was initially one about welfare reform and ways to assist fathers to stay with their families. That quickly became a clash over the very meaning of the First Amendment, with some members wondering aloud whether church and state should be separate at all.

The basis of the church-state controversy focused on "charitable choice" language in the bill that would give tax dollars to religious groups to provide social services.

Rep. Edwards, a staunch separationist, sought to bring "Fathers Count" into greater compliance with the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent. His proposed amendment was one simple sentence: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, funds shall not be provided under this section to any faith-based institution that is pervasively sectarian."

Edwards explained that without his amendment, the "Fathers Count" legislation would be unconstitutional--funding religious discrimination, forcing taxpayers to support religion and jeopardizing the independence of religious institutions.

"The Founding Fathers made it very clear," said Edwards, "and not just in putting it in the Bill of Rights, but putting in the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights, this principle: that the best way to have religious freedom and respect in America is to build a firewall between government regulations and religion. And that separation, that wall of separation between church and state, has for 200 years worked extraordinarily well.

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