- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

The questions that keep arising about President Bush's new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives are not really the tough ones. The office's new director, John DiIulio, is asked “Isn't the U.S. government going to be funding the Scientologists or some other weird cult?” The other question dogging the program is “Doesn't giving government money to one aspect of a church's mission indirectly subsidize all of the church's work since money is fungible?”

To the first question, DiIulio has a slam dunk reply. The former professor explains that only a small fraction of the programs the federal government funds are actually administered by direct federal employees. Most of the people who deliver the services taxpayers underwrite are private sector employees who have successfully bid to provide the services.

Each private group seeking to administer a federal program must demonstrate a track record of success. Though it is theoretically possible for a strange or wild cult to receive a grant to provide social services to the needy, it is highly unlikely. The weird cults tend not to have such programs, or if they do have them, they tend to be short-lived. By contrast, the more established religions have been providing tutoring, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, parenting classes, soup kitchens and child care for decades and sometimes longer.

DiIulio acknowledges that we lack hard social science data on the effectiveness of these programs — and as he frequently quips, “data is not the plural of anecdote” — still, it seems an awfully good idea to permit religious entities to compete with secular organizations to feed the poor and tend to the needy. In Philadelphia alone, 500 congregations (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Moslem) offer literacy programs for children and 300 tutor adults as well. The majority of those served are non-members of the churches. Countless churches and synagogues administer extremely effective drug and alcohol programs and anti-crime initiatives. And they bring to their task a zeal that is difficult to find in the secular world. Marvin Olasky and others who have studied the matter offer countless examples of faith-based charities that have demonstrated a genius for human renewal.

To the second question he is constantly asked, DiIulio has, in my judgment, a slightly less airtight response. On the fungibility matter, DiIulio responds that money can be and is segregated all the time. When the government gives money to the University of Pennsylvania to study mold spores, he says, it is not subsidizing the football team.

I disagree, but who cares? If a little federal money frees up other money to spend on football, so be it. Opponents of the faith-based initiative cannot imagine anything worse than the federal government indirectly subsidizing a christening. Yet the federal government directly subsidizes art that insults religion all the time, and provides grants to groups, like Planned Parenthood, who promote practices abhorred by religious people.

This brings us to the important philosophical heart of President Bush's initiative. He is challenging, I believe, the notion of church/state separation that has become gospel in modern America and embracing an older and truer understanding of the relationship between church and state.

The key question is not church/state entanglement. The key question is state neutrality. In this reading (and I don't speak for President Bush but I suspect he would agree), the state may grant funds to private religious organizations to fulfill state purposes so long as it does not discriminate invidiously among religious groups nor dictate the nature of their religious practices or beliefs. In order for the project to succeed, the state must relax its vigilance about what, in other contexts, would be considered discrimination. For example, religions that decline to ordain women should not fear Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Religious non-profits have long been exempt from the “religious discrimination” part of the Civil Rights Act (so a Baptist church could decline to hire non-Baptist drug counselors without running afoul of the law). But if this project is to succeed, religious groups should also be immune from suits alleging discrimination in hiring. If a Mormon church, for example, declines to hire a woman who is unmarried and pregnant (because this transgresses Mormon practice), it should not be ineligible to administer literacy programs.

Only if religions can retain their integrity can they continue to succeed where others have failed.

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