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Raze the Church/State Wall? Heaven Help Us!

It is not uncommon for a president to work to undo the policies of his predecessor. Certainly, George W. Bush surprised no one by systematically undoing the work of Bill Clinton. More unnerving are Bush's recent efforts to undo the work of two other former presidents: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Though others, like Thomas Paine, were influential, it was Jefferson and Madison who laid the foundation for our long-held doctrine of the separation of church and state. In recent days, Bush has revealed a comprehensive effort to create his own vision of church-state relations. If successful, Bush may bring about the most fundamental change in American democracy since its creation.
Immediately after taking office, Bush announced that he would transform the relationship between church and state by incorporating religious organizations into public work. Now, in a flurry of recent actions, the Bush administration has started what can only be viewed as a revolutionary change for our government and perhaps his most lasting legacy as president.
Just consider some of the changes being implemented:

creating an office dedicated entirely to assisting faith-based organizations in securing federal funding and playing a direct role in public programs;

expanding school voucher programs in which religious schools will receive public money;

funding faith-based organizations to use proselytizing and prayer to cure drug addiction and other social problems;

guaranteeing the right of religious organizations to openly discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion without losing federal funds;

funding the construction of religious buildings that can be used for religious activities and such public purposes as counseling or food pantries;

stripping federal funding from any school that interferes with or fails to accommodate "prayer or Bible study" by teachers or students.

With these and other initiatives, the wall between church and state would become a mere historical marker where separation was once maintained.
Obviously, this is still a far cry from a theocracy, but it is also a far cry from the secular government envisioned by framers like Jefferson.
In the coming year, we will reap the harvest of such entanglement. Mixing church and state is far more appealing when it is your church, but a rude awakening may be in store. For example, many extreme religious schools can show math and geography scores to qualify for public vouchers. However, many also teach religious views that are anathema for society, such as defining women as chattel or nonbelievers as subhuman. Because the government cannot deny funding to schools on the basis of their faith, we will subsidize such twisted dogma.
Under the new Bush guidelines, a fundamentalist religion with white supremacist or radical Islamic tenets could demand funding for new buildings. Moreover, under the Bush pro-discrimination policy, the government will openly support the refusal to hire Jews--or other people deemed to be nonbelievers--for publicly funded positions.
These initiatives are designed to fund proselytizing. In his State of the Union speech last month, President Bush cited one such program in Louisiana that expressly combats drug abuse with faith. The head of another oft-cited religious program, Teen Challenge, boasted to Congress that he was not only able to get kids to stop using drugs, he also converted Jews into Christians in the process.
Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is an anti-Semitic and racist organization, but it can also qualify for funds based on its strong anti-drug message. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, too, can demonstrate success in convincing drug addicts to go clean. Its followers simply replace a narcotic with a messianic dependence.
By funding religious buildings and programs, Bush is reversing the work of Madison, who, despite his own deep religious beliefs, vetoed efforts by Congress to give federal aid to religious organizations.
Instead, we will follow the alternative model of nations like Saudi Arabia, which offers extensive public support to religious organizations based on the same principle of faith-based solutions to social problems. After the last couple hundred years, it will be hard to set aside the teachings of Madison for those of the mullahs.
At least we will never be Iran. After all, Iran is moving in the opposite direction--toward more secular government.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington Law School.

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  • byline: Jonathan Turley

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