The following statement was released on January 29, 2001, by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) working to protect the constitutional separation of church and state since 1978.
President Bush's newly-announced initiatives on religion pose the most serious assault on the constitutional separation of church and state in our history. Today Bush announced the creation of an "Office of Faith-Based Action" and his intention to tax the American public to support a $24 billion give-away of public funds to church-related groups over the next 10 years.
People who care about our Constitution and its protections should be outraged. It would be difficult to exaggerate the constitutional peril of Bush's full frontal attack on the Establishment Clause.
What is being proposed is a massive religious tax upon the American public. Individuals will be taxed to support places of worship, denominations and ministries which violate their conscience.
Many Americans are descended from immigrants who came to this land to escape such mandatory tithes and taxation, who believed it to be unconscionable to be forced to support churches against their consent. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom:
"[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of [religious] opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."
That statute, upon which many state constitutions are predicated, noted that no citizens "shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, whatsoever." The assurance that citizens cannot be compelled to attend or support a place of worship against their consent has been a cornerstone of our secular republic.
"Charitable choice" is a misleading euphemism for Bush's proposal to fund overtly-religious organizations at all federal branches. Americans will have no choice when we're taxed to support religions under the guise of social services. Needy social service recipients who are at the mercy of religious social services will have no practical choice when they are handed bibles with their soup bowls, or are prayed over when they are seeking a bed for the night. Those applying for jobs with public-funded religious organizations will have no choice if they are hired or fired for religious reasons, because "faith-based" public-supported charities are legally permitted to engage in religious discrimination.
No needy person receiving assistance paid for with public funds should ever be proselytized. The automatic tax-exemption accorded churches is based on the assumption that they will use donations for charitable purposes. Individuals are free to seek out private religious counseling and churches are free to open their doors to the needy. But no religious proselytizing ought to be allowed if the public, made up of a diversity of Christians, atheists, Jews and others, is footing the bill.
Religious social services are already eligible for and already receive significant amounts of public funding. Appropriately, religious social services receiving tax dollars have been required to create a secular arm and a separate account, to remove religious symbols and agree not to proselytize a captive audience coming to them for help. Bush is proposing to remove all these constitutional safeguards and give proselytizing groups carte blanche with public funds.
There is no end to the potential conflicts of interest. For instance, when a Southern Baptist church receives public funds, will it advise battered women to "submit graciously" to their husbands, as their denomination's doctrine now requires? In a small town where a fundamentalist group gets the corner on tax dollars, where will a suicidal gay teenager turn when he needs help? Surely not to a fundamentalist group that considers gays "sinners" and even "abominations." What help can a teenaged girl seeking contraception receive from a public-funded Roman Catholic group freed by Bush's initiatives to force its religious doctrines on public recipients?
Current charitable choice laws do not ensure that recipients would be notified of the right to secular alternatives, or that secular alternatives in fact are available. Nor does it make fiscal sense to set up two forms of public-funded social services, when a secular social service agency can serve everyone, offends no one and does not ride roughshod over freedom of conscience.
We urge all Americans who value our secular Constitution to speak out and oppose Bush's alarming actions and proposals.