The news is coming out this morning that Barack Obama plans as president not just to maintain George W. Bush’s program of “faith-based initiatives,” but to expand them. Some historical background: Bush’s program expanded upon previous law, under which churches, mosques, synagogues and wiccan covens could already obtain government funds to run social service programs. All they had to do was promise that the programs for which they used government funds wouldn’t be proselytizing programs for the purpose of converting people to their religion. After all, the First Amendment clearly states that the government is to stay out of the business of establishing religions, and shuffling government funds to religious re-education campaigns is just that. As long as religious organizations stayed clear of converting people in the programs the government funded, they long ago were able to take government money for social service programs. George W. Bush wasn’t satisfied with this, so he set up government slush funds with the purpose of funneling money for religious activities that incorporated proselytization as a core element of their social service activities. Constitution, schmonstitution!
The predictable outcome: these government “faith-based” slush funds went disproportionately to Christian proselytizing organizations, and Christian groups to Bush’s evangelical liking especially favored. Non-Christian groups have been shut out. This is what happens when government gets to pick and choose religions to send cash… the religion of the powerful is favored. That’s why it’s a bad idea…
Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.
and in his campaign’s associated fact sheet on the matter:
Obama’s initiative will be governed by a set of core principles for federal grant recipients. In order to receive federal funds to provide social services, faith-based organizations:
==> Cannot use federal funds to proselytize or provide religious sectarian instruction.
==> Cannot discriminate against nonmembers in providing services. They must remain open to all and
cannot practice religious discrimination against the populations they serve.
==> Must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for
government-funded social service programs.
==> Can only use taxpayer dollars on secular programs and initiatives.
At first blush, this looks great… but you’ll have to pardon me if lately I don’t consider Barack Obama especially trustworthy. So let’s look again at exactly what Barack Obama says… and what he doesn’t say.
Barack Obama says:
“First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help…federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
He doesn’t say:
“First, if you get a federal grant to run a program, you can’t proselytize the people you help in that program.”
Following Barack Obama’s literal words, it is possible that churches could run proselytizing social service programs that use government money to provide a social service program and church money to provide a program of proselytization and religious instruction that occurs right alongside. This is a way for government funds to be used to prop up religious proselytization, since the social service that attracts people to religious institutions in the first place is much more expensive than religious conversion, and the government would pick up that tab.
The fuller question Barack Obama must answer:
Under your plan, will the government give money to religious organizations for programs that incorporate proselytization and religious instruction? Will religious organizations be permitted to operate government-funded secular social service programs and religious conversion programs side-by-side?
Time was, I’d have given Senator Obama the benefit of the doubt on what he meant when he made a declaration. But that was before he broke his core promise to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So now I want to see Barack Obama spell out the nitty-gritty details of his policy proposals, because those details determine whether First Amendment protections will be upheld in actuality or only in rhetoric.
Given the considerable financial and other parallel support given to Barack Obama by members, a fuller explanation of Obama’s intentions that removes even the appearance of constitutional impropriety ought to be forthcoming.