By Marv Knox
DALLAS (ABP) — Social-service programs that seek to evangelize their clients will not qualify for direct federal grants, the head of President Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives told a gathering of conservative Christian leaders.
But that policy could lead to discrimination against evangelicals, warned the strategist who coined Bush’s “compassionate conservative” slogan.
John DiIulio, head of the new White House office, and Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine, both addressed the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals March 7 in Dallas.
“Religious organizations can include specifically or strictly religious activities in their programs, but they cannot use public funds to pay for such activities,” said DiIulio, who left a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania to take the White House job.
Olasky, however, contended that such a policy would discriminate against “Christ-drenched” programs that seek to change people’s lives by leading them to salvation.
Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, advised Bush during his presidential campaign. Olasky described himself as “five-sixths a supporter of faith-based initiatives.” The potential problem with the program, he said, is “the likelihood of discrimination against strong Christian programs.”
“A strong Christian school is not just a strong school with a chapel tacked on,” Olasky said, adding that what is taught in history, biology and math “show God at work.”
“A strong anti-poverty program is Christian through and through,” he said, explaining such programs affirm human worth, denounce sin and stress “the need to have a relationship with the heavenly Father.”
A program ripe for discrimination is Teen Challenge, which insists the only cure for addiction is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Olasky said. He cited a recent news story that reported DiIulio had said Teen Challenge could not qualify for federal funding.
“I hope John will clarify his position for us today,” Olasky said.
DiIulio clarified, but apparently not the way Olasky had hoped.
“Under charitable choice (the umbrella program for government funding of social programs), community-serving organizations, both religious and secular, can seek federal support on the same basis as any other non-governmental providers of those services,” he said. “Sacred places that serve civic purposes can seek federal — or federal-state — funding without having to divest themselves of their religious â€¦ symbols.”
Federal laws still apply, however, he added. “Faith-based providers that receive penny-one of public money cannot discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of race, color, gender, age, national origin, disability or religion.”
Religious organizations can “take religion into account in their employment decisions,” he conceded, but they cannot discriminate “in hiring, firing or promotion decisions based on race, color, national origin, gender, age and disability.”
The laws also dictate the range of programs in which government funds can be used, he said.
“Charitable choice flatly prohibits federal funds from being used ‘for sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization,'” he explained.
One answer to this dilemma is for faith-based organizations to create “segregated accounts,” he suggested. This structure would separate the religious and social functions of an organization so that “walled-off government funds” could be channeled to the non-religious components of the agency’s work, but not to the religious functions.
Another answer is use of government vouchers, which actually would be accorded to the beneficiary of the services, not directly channeled to the faith-based organization, DiIulio said.
This would allow a person to receive the religious agency’s services without crossing constitutional lines, he said. It can be an option when secular organizations that provide the same services also are available, he added.
“The indivisibly conversion-centered program that cannot separate out and privately fund its inherently religious activities can still receive government support, but only via vouchers,” he said.
Olasky affirmed vouchers. “Let beneficiaries choose from a variety of faith-based and secular programs,” he said. “Vouchers avoid problems of discrimination, government entanglement and church-state relations.”
DiIulio’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is taking on three challenges, he told the religious leaders.
“First, we aim to boost charitable giving, both human and financial,” he said. This goal includes tax-code provisions that would permit 80 million non-itemizers, or 70 percent of all taxpayers, to deduct charitable contributions.
Second, the office is forming centers to monitor programs in five U.S. cabinet agencies — Justice, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, he reported.
These centers will work to ensure that federal programs are “as accessible, open and hospitable to faith-based groups as possible,” he said.
“Our third goal is to seed or expand selected model public/private programs that involved community-based organizations in meeting civic needs,” he reported.
He told a news conference the office will work with several pilot programs this year and then make funds available to applicant organizations next year.
President Bush’s faith-based initiative has drawn concern from two of his strongest allies within the Religious Right.
Both TV preacher Pat Robertson and preacher/political populist Jerry Falwell have expressed strong reservations.
“I really don’t know what to do,” Robertson, president of the Christian Coalition, told his “700 Club” TV audience. “This thing could be a real Pandora’s box, and what seems to be a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government.”
He expressed concern that public tax dollars could be channeled to religious groups he opposes, such as the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
Falwell echoed those sentiments.
“I have deep concerns about the faith-based initiatives, but I am in support,” he told the Beliefnet Internet news service. “My problem is not with the Bush presidency. My problem is where it might go under his successors.”
Falwell specifically mentioned the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islam as being unworthy potential recipients of federal aid.
He also expressed concern about possible government intervention in ministries that receive public funding.
“I’m saying â€¦, ‘Be careful,'” he noted. “That’s how it works in most of the socialist countries. Be very careful that you don’t surrender any of your freedoms, any of your liberties.”
Associated Baptist Press
Used with permission.