Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are receiving some glowing reviews for their proposals to address social problems through new partnerships between faith-based organizations and government. On this page on June 11, Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal noted that Gore and Bush may be part of "an awakening" to "a new vision of real social change." On May 28, also on this page, E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote that Gore "scored his point for God."
Without doubt, government and religion can do much good together to address the pressing needs of our times. It has long been permissible, for example, for the government to fund groups that have ties to religion but are set up to perform secular social services, such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services in America. But Gore and Bush have taken this idea a giant step further by advocating "charitable choice," a plan whereby tax subsidies might flow to houses of worship and other thoroughly religious entities that perform social services.
In a speech in Atlanta last month, Gore deemed charitable choice (which first appeared in the 1996 welfare reform law) a "carefully tailored approach" and proposed extending it "to other vital services where faith-based organizations can play a role -- such as drug treatment, homelessness and youth violence prevention." Gore's potential competitor for the White House, Gov. Bush, also supports charitable choice and made the concept a focal point of his maiden stump speech in Iowa.
But charitable choice threatens to damage the very things Gore and Bush say they treasure -- religion and religious liberty. Put simply, charitable choice is the wrong way to do right.
For one thing, religious ministries would be regulated by the government, which would mean audits and, probably, tedious reporting, intrusive compliance reviews and even the subordination of religious principles to government policies and objectives.
Gore and Bush have emphasized that the charitable choice law attempts to protect the religious character and autonomy of providers, but whether these protections would survive judicial scrutiny is questionable. For example, is it constitutional to allow a religious ministry to insist that no Jews or Muslims need apply for jobs that are tax-funded? One federal district court has already refused to allow the Salvation Army to fire an employee whose salary was paid substantially with tax money simply because the employee was a Wiccan.
Second, under charitable choice, religious ministries could become administrative centers of government benefits and services and gain associated duties such as terminating benefits, reporting on beneficiaries and otherwise policing the system. Instead of being known as sanctuaries, churches could come to be viewed essentially as arms of the state. If tax subsidies flow to churches and other religious ministries, the role of religion as prophetic critic of government also will be diminished.
Finally, despite Gore's insistence that "government must never promote a particular religious view," charitable choice would force the government to pick and choose among religions -- it cannot fund them all. Religions might compete for government grants before elected legislators, thereby fanning the fires of religious division and giving representatives yet another opportunity to turn religion into a political tool.
The vice president believes that imposing certain "clear and strict safeguards" will obviate religious liberty problems. He states that government must never "try to force anyone to receive faith." He also cautions that "we must ensure that there is always a high-quality secular choice available . . . [and] continue to prohibit direct proselytizing as part of any publicly funded efforts."
But some of these safeguards are impossible to administer. How does one define "direct proselytizing," much less ensure that a church isn't using public money to do it? Moreover, Gore's safeguards are insufficient. Tax money simply should not flow through the church house door, because stifling, intrusive government regulation will quickly follow. These are some of the reasons the Supreme Court has ruled that tax funds should not flow to thoroughly religious entities such as churches.
Church and state can work cooperatively without being tied together with funding strings. Houses of worship and governmental officials can and should share information about needs and programs. The government can highlight the good work that religious missions and other social service groups are doing and make referrals to these groups when appropriate.
Government also can encourage increased private subsidies for religious ministries, as Gore did in some of his remarks. Legislatures can help by passing tax incentives for charitable giving, such as the bipartisan Charitable Giving Tax Relief Act, which would allow non-itemizers to deduct 50 percent of their charitable gifts over $500.
Another way for church and state to cooperate is for churches and other religious missions to form separate entities to provide secular social services with tax money.
Religion in America is robust precisely because it relies on the strength of its message and voluntary gifts, rather than compulsory tax funds, for its support. Religion in America is vital precisely because it is largely free from government direction and regulation.
The writer is associate general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee.