Why the rush to judgment on getting public money to faith-based organizations?

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Eye from Albany
January 2003

Why the rush to judgment on getting public money to faith-based organizations?
By Paul M. Bray

Joining religion, politics and money together is a very explosive mixture, but that fact is not stopping the Bush Administration from moving full steam ahead with its faith-based strategy.

The Federal Constitution has been interpreted to permit faith-based organizations to receive public money to provide various social services like housing, drug and alcoholic treatment, mental health, welfare to work, child care and family services and emergency food and shelter. These services must be limited to secular activities.

Faith-based organizations have long been a key part of the nation’s social safety net acting both with private contributions and public funding. On its own the faith-based sector mobilizes a quarter of all Americans who volunteer for social services programs. The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy also reports “As of the early 1990s, public funds to congregations were less than 1%, while private contributions totaled some $20 Billion.”

In New York State faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services are government contractors providing a wide range of social services through the vehicle of secular nonprofit corporations. This is a model used by many States.

Given the reality that faith-based organizations currently have a great deal of capacity to provide social services through their access to volunteers, contributions and public funding through nonprofit channels, the current system hardly looks like it is broken. With separation of church and state as a bed rock principle of our democracy, the premium should be on maintaining the separation rather than at best muddying the water between government and religion.

Lets look a little closer at what is coming out of Washington at a time when war fever on the Potomac takes much of the public’s attention. Not to be stymied by Congress’s inaction on faith-based legislation, in part, because of concern over hiring discrimination language, President Bush issued an Executive Order on December 13th allowing public dollars to be used to fund positions that discriminate on the basis of religion and proactively took some other steps to foster increased access of public funds by faith-based organizations. The White House is organizing seminars to train faith-based organizations on becoming government contractors. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote he would not be reassured by a Bush administration denial that “it is opening up a new source of patronage friends on the Christian right.”

One has to wonder what is driving the rush to advance the flow of public money to faith-based organizations. Questions and concerns appear from all quarters including from the faith-based community itself. Many in that community believe that “faith” is the key benefit faith-based organizations can offer to the social service recipient and faith gets lost if it can’t come with the social service. Since no part of a federal grant can be used to fund religious worship, instruction or proselytizing, the official administering the public funds has to determine that faith or religious content is not part of the social service provided. Why should the government be putting itself in this intrusive situation? Public money is very attractive. But the best of the faith-based organizations may be justifiably repelled by the limitations on religious contact and the public intrusion that comes with it. They and the public at large including t! hose needing public services may be better off when faith-based organizations rely on the collection plate.

Then there is the effectiveness question that hasn’t been answered. The Rockefeller Institute for Government located in Albany, NY is undertaking a study to address the “lack of even-handed, independent, empirical research as to which faith-based programs are the most efficient and effective, what factors contribute to that success, or how significant the ‘faith factor’ is to their level of effectiveness.” Institute Director Richard Nathan noted that, “Our focus also seeks answers about the use of public funds in faith-based social service programs, and their effectiveness when compared to secular counterparts.”

Therefore, Mr. President, what is the rush? Let these effectiveness studies continue and let the courts decide the constitutionality of President’s Bush’s authorization for employment discrimination. Only when we have these answers can we adequately consider whether the existing model for faith-based social services works or could be improved, and to the extent it may be broken whether the cures being advanced by the White House are worth the price to our democratic society.

Once we have a better handle on the effectiveness questions, hopefully New York’s voices will be actively heard in the national debate especially if the evidence points to President Bush’s faith-based efforts being a political gambit.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com.