Bush's Faith-Based Finagling:

 Legislation Weakens but Doesn't Slow Down President's Faith-Based Initiative

by Bill Berkowitz

Dissident Voice

June 14, 2003


After more than two years of haggling, in early April the Senate passed the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act of 2003 (S. 476), a stripped-down version of President Bush's highly-touted faith-based initiative. While the House has yet to pass its version of a faith-based bill, it appears that the proposal’s most noxious element, the charitable choice exemption, will remain on the cutting room floor. Does the shredding of the centerpiece of the administration's "compassionate conservative" domestic agenda signal an end to the president's obsession with pursuing faith-based solutions to vexing social problems?


While the president's full package failed to generate enough Congressional or public support, the core of the initiative is alive and well. Administration-driven faith-based programs are moving down the pike at a steady clip.


The passage of the CARE Act by the Senate resulted from a carefully crafted compromise engineered by Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT). The bill grants new tax breaks for donations to religious and other charities; gives $1.4 billion in subsidies to a variety of social service programs through the Social Services Block Grant program for fiscal years 2003 and 2004; and provides $150 million in technical assistance grants to help small charities apply for grants and expand their community outreach. In addition, in what Focus on the Family's Family News in Focus characterizes as a provision "tucked inside the legislation" the CARE Act eliminates the distinction between grassroots lobbying and what is known as direct lobbying, “allowing more time and money to be spent on grassroots lobbying."


While President Bush admitted that the new bill fell short of his goal of more government funding for faith-based programs, in a written statement he "commend[ed] the Senate for acting in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that will help us meet our shared goal of better serving Americans in need.” The President’s statement continues, saying “this legislation contains key elements of the faith-based initiative that I proposed more than two years ago to encourage more charitable giving and rally the armies of compassion that exist in communities all across America."


Ken Connor of the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council declared that the president's faith-based initiative had "all but fizzled in the Senate. Mr. Bush's signature plan to allow religious and faith-based groups to compete equally for federal funding has been whittled down to almost nothing. Not even faith remains in the faith-based initiative, as anti-discrimination protections to allow groups to maintain their religious character have been dropped at the insistence of Democrats."


Despite disappointment amongst some on the Religious Right, work on the president's faith-based initiative is moving ahead. Seven government agencies -- the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and the Agency for International Development -- have already established Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The object of these Centers is "to promote the administration's faith-based and community agenda by changing how the federal government operates," according to the White House Web site.


Long and winding road


Less than ten days after his inauguration, President Bush, surrounded by clergy representing a number of different faiths, issued an executive order that created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). The president appointed longtime criminologist and political scientist John DiIulio to head the operation. The initiative had two primarily objectives: Removing "barriers" prohibiting faith-based organizations from receiving government funds, allowing them to provide an array of social services; and offering tax incentives to encourage greater charitable giving.


The subtext of the president's initiative was characterized by Lewis C. Daly of the Institute for Democracy Studies as an ambitious proposal "to transfer a sweeping range of government social services directly into the hands of America's churches."


Prominent conservatives and liberals were quick to voice their opposition: Conservatives were alarmed that the Church of Scientology, the Nation of Islam, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and other organizations of their ilk would now become eligible for government grants. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he wouldn't touch faith-based money "with the proverbial ten-foot pole." Civil liberties organizations and gay rights groups were concerned that the initiative would further blur the lines of separation between church and state, as well as the potential for discriminatory hiring practices by religious organizations that were fundamentally opposed to hiring gays and lesbians.


The initiative suffered a string of setbacks. By July 2001, DiIulio resigned and a few months later Jim Towey was appointed new director of the OFBCI. The office was placed under the wing of John Bridgeland, who had been appointed to head of the USA Freedom Corps. A major crisis unfolded when the Washington Post revealed that top administration officials had tried to solicit support from the Salvation Army by offering a firm commitment that any legislation the White House supported would allow religious organizations to sidestep state and local anti-discrimination measures barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.


Despite intense lobbying and maneuvering, for more than two years, Bush's faith-based plan was tangled in legislative gridlock. When the CARE Act finally emerged from the Senate, there was little in it in the way of faith; instead, the focus was on tax credits.


That was then...


An early-March forum called "The Faith-Based Initiative Two Years Later: Examining its Potential, Progress and Problems," offered a progress report on two-years in the life of the faith-based initiative. The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a project of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, sponsored the forum. The pros and cons of faith-based initiatives were debated by Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from February 2001 to May 2002, and the Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.


In introductory remarks, Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, noted that participation by religious groups in the provision of social services "is a very high priority for this president and this administration. It shows you what the bully pulpit can do to energize groups and to create tremendous interest in how faith groups can help deal with social issues."


Carlson-Thies pointed out that long before there was a Bush Administration "the government was funding child and family-serving agencies that were expressly faith-based, in terms of what they displayed on their walls, prayers over meals, encouraging discussion of religious matters, and giving preference to staff of the same faith and so on."


The controversial "Charitable Choice" initiative -- inserted by then-Senator John Ashcroft into the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (Welfare Reform) in 1996, which allowed religious organizations to infuse religious beliefs into service programs while still receiving government funding -- was no longer "just a debate topic," Carlson-Theis said. It is "a public policy innovation that's already reshaping how federally funded services are delivered at the state and local levels."


In its report "Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute said "charitable choice" demanded "no fiscal accountability," had "no requirement that religious institutions not discriminate," and provided "no safeguard against recipients of social services being subjected to proselytizing and other forms of coercive activity."


Carlson-Thies participated in the writing of "The Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs," a seminal White House document that tried to turn the discussion on faith-based initiatives away from whether they violated the principle of the separation of church and state towards charges that the government was discriminating against faith-based organizations. He pointed out that Bush's project was essentially engaged in "renegotiating the church-state boundaries [which] is one key part of renegotiating the relationship between government and civil society, and such renegotiations are taking place in many countries."


This is now


A critical question about faith-based initiatives that continues to receive little attention is whether these programs work as well as or better than secularly run programs. Carol DeVita of the Urban Institute's Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy recently told the Salt Lake City's Deseret News that "the jury's still out" on this and other important questions since there hasn't been a systematic study yet of the content of faith-based programs that are receiving government grants.


Supporters of the initiative claim to have reams of anecdotal evidence, also known as "these-guys-are-walking-around-feeling-better" stories. The Rev. Barry Lynn pointed out that given the huge expenditure -- coupled with the fact that appropriations for other services will have to be cut in order to provide funds for faith-based programs -- anecdotal evidence is an absurd way to measure whether the programs are meeting its goals. "Science, technology, common sense and logic [should be used] in deciding how to distribute scarce funds," Lynn said.


However, in one of the most comprehensive studies on faith-based initiatives to date, the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund found that "after five years of aggressively implementing the Bush-led Faith-Based Initiative in Texas, positive results have proven impossible to document or measure. Evidence points instead to a system that is unregulated, prone to favoritism and co-mingling of funds, and even dangerous to the very people it is supposed to serve." According to the October 2002 report, "The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years: Warning Signs as President Bush Expands Texas-Style Program to National Level," "The Faith-Based Initiative has proven to be a treacherous enterprise for houses of worship, taxpayers, and people in need alike. So treacherous, in fact, that even the very legislators who once promoted the Faith-Based Initiative in Texas have now abandoned the idea."

(For more on this report, click here)   


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains an exemption that allows churches, mosques and synagogues to hire only members of their faith. Last December, President Bush issued an executive order extending this exemption to faith-based organizations that receive government grants to provide a broad array of social services. The New York Times editorialized that the president had "punched a dangerous hole in the wall between church and state… eas[ing] the way for religious groups to receive federal funds to run social services."


In this year's State of the Union address the president announced a $600 million voucher-for-drug-treatment program. Earlier in the month, the administration announced its intention to allow public funds to be spent on rehabilitating church buildings where social services are offered. The Washington Post editorialized on what appeared to be a new broad-based administration strategy for implementing its faith-based agenda: "Once, he [President Bush] tackled it head-on, as a centerpiece of his compassionate conservatism. He did it by supporting, say, increased funding for faith-based groups or tax deductions for charitable contributions. Now he seems to have retreated to something more like a 'reinventing government' strategy, using executive orders and rule changes. For him, this has the advantage of tackling bureaucratic hostility to faith-based groups. But for the nation, it has a great disadvantage of ducking debate on the thicket of central constitutional principles involved."


"The faith-based initiative of this administration is a lot more than a specific piece of legislation. ... To announce it is dead in its tracks is not true at all," said Michael S. Joyce, president of the Foundation for Community and Faith Centered Enterprise (FCFE), and longtime supporter of faith-based initiatives.


Joyce, who helped fund a number of faith-based projects when he headed the conservative Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation, understands that the battle over the separation of church and state, "charitable choice," and government funding of religious organizations will not end with the passage and signing of the CARE Act. The administration will accept the watered-down CARE Act because it recognizes that it is all it can achieve at this time. Besides, according to the Associated Press, Sen. Santorum promised "to revisit the issue when a bill renewing the welfare program comes to the floor later this year."


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.



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