Bush's Faith-Based Office

The Christian Century, February 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bush's Faith-Based Office


MAKING GOOD on a campaign promise to increase the role of faith-based institutions in public policy, President George W. Bush laid out the groundwork in his second week at the White House to allow religious organizations to receive government money in exchange for fighting poverty, addiction, homelessness and a range of social ills.

After a White House meeting with nearly three dozen religious leaders on January 29, Bush announced his White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a clearinghouse for programs that promote religion-related groups and charities as a means to deliver social services. Bush has asked Congress to make it easier for faith-based groups to compete with secular agencies for government dollars and for more rank-and-file citizens to receive tax deductions for charitable donations. "We will encourage faith-based and community programs without changing their mission," Bush said.

But civil liberties groups promised to challenge the program in the courts as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. "The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who called the plan a "constitutional nightmare."

Bush tapped University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, a Roman Catholic and intellectual dean of the faith-based movement, to head the new office, and appointed former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who is Jewish, as a special adviser on community initiatives. Bush also appointed Goldsmith to the board of the Corporation for National Service, the parent agency for AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and like groups.

The president signed an executive order telling five cabinet departments--Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education--to investigate ways to make it easier for religious groups to compete for government contracts. His spokesman, Ad Fleischer, indicated that concerns about church-state separation would be addressed as the proposal works its way through Congress. Fleischer said Bush would seek to fund only the "community service aspects" of faith-based organizations and not the "religious aspects." He said it would be up to federal departments to decide which groups were "appropriate," but left the door open for everyone from evangelicals to the Nation of Islam to apply.

The new office could channel as much as $24 billion over ten years to the private sector to handle everything from prison and drug rehabilitation to homeless feeding programs, welfare-to-work programs and efforts to combat illiteracy.

Conservative groups praised the proposals. "This is a creative and constitutionally sound approach that should be embraced, not shunned," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, the advocacy firm founded by Pat Robertson. But liberal associations were skeptical. "President Bush is trying to do right, but he's going about it in the wrong way," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he is nervous about the right of religious groups--as private, nonprofit organizations-to discriminate in hiring and choosing who they will help.

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) official, noting the similarity to the "charitable choice" provision in 1996 legislation, said she would wait to see what the proposals entail. …

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