Faith-Based Funding and Religious Freedom
By Alex Colvin
President George W. Bush’s proposal for federal funding of faith-based programs has unleashed a whirlwind of discussion from across the political and religious spectrum. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have argued that the legislation will violate separation of Church and State. Representatives of Catholic and Jewish organizations have questioned whether it is possible for the government to provide funds without "strings attached" that would result in interference in religious affairs.
Others have expressed concern about government funding of controversial alternative religions. For instance, Pat Robertson wrote in a Wall Street Journal article on March 13:
No matter that some may use brainwashing techniques, or that the founder of one claims to be the messiah and another that he was Buddha reincarnated. Under the proposed faith-based initiative, all must receive taxpayer funds if they provide ‘effective’ service to the poor. In my mind, this creates an intolerable situation.
In a recent interview on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, Steve Hassan, a prominent proponent of the "anti-cult" movement, said that initially he feared the initiative because it would provide funding for "cults." However, Hassan told O’Reilly, he has now come to believe that debate over faith-based funding provides an opportunity for the government to adopt guidelines for distinguishing between legitimate religions and dangerous ones. Writing to John Dilulio in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Hassan says:
One of your most serious challenges will be to distinguish authentic faith-based organizations from fraudulent and destructive ones… It is precisely those who seek help from faith-based initiatives that are at greatest risk of being recruited into such groups…The good news is that it is possible to identify a destructive group based on its behaviors, and not beliefs.
The question of funding religious organizations raises several First Amendment concerns. One major issue concerns the Supreme Court’s consistent assertion that government may not prefer one religion over another. Supporters and opponents of government funding for faith-based initiatives alike refer to this principle.
For example, in a debate on National Public Radio with Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rev. Jerry Falwell stated that he supported the faith-based initiative and that social programs of all religions should be eligible. He also said that he that religious organizations engaged in social ministry should not be barred from teaching their religious ideas, because that is what makes them effective. Rev. Lynn agreed that the faith engendered by the religious message makes church ministries effective. He was adamantly opposed, however, to the idea that the government should fund programs that propagate religious doctrines or result in conversion to a particular faith. As an alternative, he proposed liberalizing tax exemptions so that citizens would be encouraged and free to support those religious ministries.
Is it possible for the government to provide aid to churches for social work without passing regulations that will infringe on those groups? Will dependence on government funding have an effect on a church’s organization or sense of mission? If churches come to view government grants as a source of funds for their ministries, how will competition for those funds affect the political and electoral process? These are some of the questions that are legislators will need to examine and that the courts may face as we seek the thread that leads through this labyrinth.
Moreover, fear of "cults" adds to the volatility of this mix. If government funding is provided to religious organizations, will legislators be able to resist pressure to define and classify religions as acceptable and unacceptable? Will administrators resist the efforts of self-appointed arbiters of faith who have been chomping at the bit to align themselves with government agencies?
Faith-based organizations are effective at solving problems. Their role is crucial. It is important that public officials be aware of the role of religious organizations and that secular and faith-based institutions cooperate in ameliorating the quality of life in our communities. It may be that a formula can be found that provides public funding for faith-based organizations while ensuring religious liberty. Or it may be that the better solution lies in amending tax policy to increase private donations to faith-based ministries.