Church/State / Faith-Based Initiative

Faith-Based Deja Vu

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Faith-Based Deja Vu
March 29, 2005

As it enters its fifth year, President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative has finally emerged from obscurity, but this may not be good news for the administration. The initiative gained attention for being one of the few social programs left untouched by Bush’s budget ax only to have its former deputy director emerge to criticize the administration for providing less than ten percent of the $6.8 billion promised over the past four years.

More significantly, in the last few months two federal courts have held that grants awarded under the initiative violated the First Amendment of the Constitution by promoting and/or funding religious activities. Similar cases are pending.

The Faith-Based Initiative seeks to expand the role of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in providing federally-funded social services. The danger for the Bush administration is that as more attention is focused on this initiative, people may recognize that it increasingly resembles Bush’s Texas faith-based program which a Texas Freedom Network study found to be “unregulated, prone to favoritism and commingling of funds, and even dangerous to the very people it is supposed to serve.”

Bush launched the Texas faith-based program in 1996, stressing that “[g]overnment can hand out money, but [only faith can] put hope in our hearts.” The Texas program established an alternative and more lax accreditation system for FBOs in order to include groups such as Teen Challenge, a faith-based substance abuse program praised by Bush despite having a 49-page list of health and safety codes violations including failing to “protect the health, safety, rights and welfare of clients.”

The Texas study found that the alternatively accredited FBOs had a confirmed abuse and neglect rate that was 25 times higher than state-licensed facilities. Several of these alternatively accredited FBOs were treating drug and alcohol addiction without any medical component and instead treated it as a “sin” for which “Jesus Christ was the solution.”

The Texas study also revealed that grants were awarded to FBOs over proven, more cost-effective providers solely because of the faith component of their services. More significantly, constitutional restrictions were ignored as some state-funded FBOs coerced secular clients into joining their religious services and grant funds were commingled with church funds and used to purchase bibles.

Despite these results, Bush has followed the same approach with his federal initiative. As in Texas, Bush launched the federal initiative by loosening regulatory requirements for FBOs which included removing several constitutionally required safeguards (e.g., allowing federal funds to build religious structures), limiting oversight to “self-audits,” and seeking to exempt FBOs from job discrimination laws.

Like Texas, there is evidence of favoritism and commingling of funds as Federal grants were awarded to a number of conservative religious leaders and friends of the Bush administration, including Pat Robertson’s “Operation Blessing.” This has lead some to dismiss the initiative as a pork barrel program for the religious right.

In October, a federal court found federal faith-based grants for a Montana rural health care program that sought to “advance[e] and endors[e] religion as a substantial component” of providing health care to be unconstitutional. The Montana program favored FBOs over secular programs and provided grants on a non-competitive basis to a nursing school that instructed students on the use of prayer and worship as therapeutic practices.

As in Texas, FBOs have used federal funds for religious instruction and to proselytize. In the most recent case, the court halted funding for a Wisconsin mentoring program for children of prisoners which required the mentors to “read, act out or talk about Biblical examples of where Jesus showed grace to people,” introduce the children to the Bible and provide reports on whether the children were “progressing in [their] relationship with God.”

This is not an isolated case, as a suit filed in February challenged funding of a Pennsylvania job training program for prison inmates run by Firm Foundation where a significant portion of the inmates’ time is devoted towards religious discussions and not learning job skills. Firm Foundation’s founder, Wayne H. Blow, defended the program by asking “[w]hat is wrong with faith if it can make a difference in people’s lives?” This response, however, only demonstrates the alarming failure of the administration to provide clear guidance on the constitutional limitations on the use of federal funds, since the question is not whether faith can make a difference but whether the government should sponsor religious indoctrination.

President Bush is trying to have it both ways when it comes to this initiative. On one hand, the administration stresses that the Faith-Based Initiative is about funding effective social services programs and not endorsing religion, but it has failed to prevent the use of government funds for religious purposes and made no systematic effort to monitor the effectiveness of these program or rebut independent studies finding that FBOs are at best equal to and often less effective than secular providers.

On the other hand, the administration repeatedly promotes the religious aspect of the program with statements by the President that hope and a sense of purpose can be restored when someone “puts an arm around a neighbor and says ‘God loves you'” and by taking steps such as providing a link on the HHS website instructing pastors on sermons relating to HIV. The First Amendment prohibitions on funding religious activities are important because, as Supreme Court Justice Black explained, “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”

Bush has shamelessly used faith-based programs to exploit both institutions for political gain while cloaked by the initiative’s obscurity. With this cloak now receding, Congress and the media no longer have an excuse for allowing this exploitation to continue.

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