The Case against Charitable Choice

By Matsui, Elena; Chuman, Joseph | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

The Case against Charitable Choice

Matsui, Elena, Chuman, Joseph, The Humanist

Charitable choice was one of the issues of the 2000 elections upon which there was supposed agreement. Since Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. which includes a charitable choice provision, the concept is engraved in law. But is it really such a good idea?

Ethicist and church-state scholar Paul Simmons doesn't think so. He observes, "Those who advocate public support for clergy or religious enterprises have not come to terms with the corrupting and enervating effect of governmental protectionism. Efforts to protect lead to corruption and weakening of religion by the civil powers."

Marci A. Hamilton, professor of law at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law, also warns, "The next major church-state issue to become a source of conflict will likely be social service contracts based on the charitable choice provision of the welfare reform act. The potential constitutional problems have hardly been evaluated. When religion steps into the shoes of government, the civil rights of those receiving the funds become an issue. In order for the transmission of funds to be constitutional, the government will be required to place limits on how the funds are administered, including limitations on proselytization. Such limits, though, invite free exercise challenges from the churches. Government funding in any category implicating First Amendment values invites discord and litigation."

In the following two essays, written independently of each other, three humanists examine charitable choice and what it means for U.S. citizens. First, Elena Matsui and Joseph Chuman make their "Case Against Charitable Choice" from a civil liberties viewpoint. Then Lyse Hurd offers a look at the other side from a social service standpoint.

IT WILL TURN religion against religion. It will make religion a servant of the state. It will let our government play favorites among believers, and it will destroy the separation of church and state as we have known it.

A scenario concocted out of the Middle Ages? A nefarious plot by satanic evildoers? No, it's charitable choice and it's a very dangerous idea.

The Welfare Act of 1996 was passed by Congress to replace the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, a federal entitlement with block grants to be distributed by the states. Charitable choice is one provision of the new law, and it allows the federal government to contract with faith-based agencies serving single mothers with dependent children. It emerged from the notion that faith-based services can be more effective than secular ones.

More recently, Republican Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri (defeated in the 2000 elections by the late Mel Carnahan) introduced legislation to expand charitable choice to every current and future health and social service program that receives federal funds, including homeless and senior initiatives, juvenile services, substance-abuse treatment and prevention programs, and abstinence education. The aim of charitable choice is to divest the state of its social responsibilities. However, by involving faith-based organizations, the churches in effect become administrative arms of these government programs. The initiative was the signature issue of George W. Bush's effort to portray himself as a "compassionate conservative" as he campaigned last year for the presidency, and Al Gore, striving to outdo Bush as a "friend of religion," also spoke glowingly of charitable choice.

But any true friend of religion should be very wary of charitable choice for the threats it augurs for religious freedom. Scores of national religious organizations and hundreds of religious leaders across the religious spectrum--from conservative to liberal-advocate against charitable choice. Among them are the Baptist Joint Committee, representing eleven Baptist bodies; the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.; the American Jewish Committee; the conference of Seventh-day Adventists; the Church of the Brethren; various Roman Catholic organizations, the Friends, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. …

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