- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

It is not surprising that the president’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would be criticized from those who have a deep antipathy toward religious influence in the public square. What is surprising is the antagonism shown by a few religious conservatives to a key element of the president’s proposal. They are concerned about the provision in the president’s plan that would expand “charitable choice,” a part of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that allows religious groups to compete for federal grants on an equal footing with non-religious ones. Their objections, although well-meaning, are ill-founded.

Perhaps the best way to undo the confusion surrounding this issue is to respond to the most frequently cited concerns.

Some worry that government involvement with religious institutions would weaken the spiritual component of those institutions. But government cannot coerce faith-based organizations into accepting government money. Therefore, institutions fearful of the enervating effects of government grants can (and should) simply opt out. And it is far from inevitable that religious organizations receiving federal money will become spiritually enervated.

There are a raft of examples one can cite of religious institutions that have received government aid for their social work while vigilantly preserving their independence. Indeed, charitable choice has helped to preserve the integrity of religious institutions by allowing them to retain control “over the definition, development, practice and expression” of their religious beliefs. Today, thanks to charitable choice, religious groups can hold voluntary prayers, display religious icons and use religious principles and concepts in counseling and providing services.

The greatest concern of those conservatives who object to the faith-based proposal is the requirement that faith-based groups separate their religious messages from their social services. This, they argue, would make some of the most successful programs ineligible for grants. But that is how things have always been. The government cannot fund specific, targeted programs whose explicit purpose is religious conversion; federal dollars can only go to other non-religious, but still important, purposes. However, thanks to the charitable choice provision, religious groups that are able to separate at least some of their good works from their evangelism are no longer discriminated against. Indeed, supported Christian groups can provide Bibles and conduct prayer sessions so long as these activities are paid for with private money.

Those who believe government funding should be given to religious groups for the express purpose of proselytism may be frustrated, but their disagreement is not with President Bush; it is with the U.S. Constitution. Direct government money cannot be used for sectarian worship, instruction or proselytizing. It cannot require people to participate in religious activities. And it cannot be given to groups that deny services based on religious views.

I believe that the vast majority of organizations will be able to separate their social work from directly promulgating the faith. Those that cannot are constitutionally proscribed from receiving federal dollars but even these groups can receive government aid through vouchers.

Finally, some have argued that this bill will launch a dramatic expansion of the welfare state at a time when both parties agree that “the era of big government is over.” The truth, however, is that charitable choice legislation expands neither the size nor the scope of the federal government. It would simply allow religious groups to compete for the sizeable amount of government spending that goes to non-governmental organizations each year.

I believe the president’s proposal can have a profoundly positive effect. Politically, it can help to reshape the Republican Party by giving concrete expression to “compassionate conservatism.” Socially, it can help us make significant headway in making America a more just and caring society by assisting the homeless, drug addicts, those who can’t read, children of adult prisoners and many others. And the president’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative can have a significant cultural impact by helping to reverse the decades-long hostility government has shown toward religion.

I recognize that Mr. Bush’s initiative is only a first step, but it is an important one. I hope that members of Congress, in looking at this legislation, carefully consider what is at stake and that they support the administration’s efforts to help those charities that have profoundly altered so many lives for the better.

William J. Bennett is co-director of Empower America and founder and chairman of K12, an Internet-based elementary and secondary education company.

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