Contract On The Family Sets Agenda Of Congress by Annie Laurie Gaylor (April 1996)

Ever since Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition unveiled its so-called “Contract with the American Family” last May, this rightwing Christian lobbying group has been setting the Congressional agenda.

When presenting its legislative ultimatum to Newt Gingrich and others, Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed was widely quoted as joking that these were the “ten suggestions,” not the “Ten Commandments.” But Reed did not disguise the fact that he expected quid pro quo–Gingrich’s support in exchange for the Christian Coalition’s support of Gingrich’s Contract with America.

What are these “ten suggestions”?

I “Restoring Religious Equality”

Late last year two versions of the Religious Equality Amendment were introduced. The Istook amendment, garnering more than 100 supporters in the House, would allow worship and prayer not just in public schools but as part of any governmental operation, such as nativity pageants at the Capitol. The Hyde amendment places less emphasis on school prayer but would clearly authorize public funding for church schools, charities or activities, a form of massive parochiaid. School prayer amendments are nothing new, but these pose a broader, more devastating attack which would, if successful, end the separation of church and state.

II “Returning Education Control to the Local Level”

As the Christian Coalition got its start with self-avowed “stealth campaigns” to take over school boards, this emphasis comes as no surprise. Every leading GOP candidate for the president has endorsed the Christian Coalition’s call to abolish the Department of Education.

III “Promoting School Choice”

Ironically, while it opposes federal standards or directives for public schools, and supports the abolition of welfare, the Christian Coalition endorses public assistance to low-income parents to send children to religious (or other private) schools. “Welfare” or “affirmative action” is apparently acceptable only if it means federal money is furthering religion. Vouchers, “charter schools,” the “privatization of public schools” are all approved. Numerous voucher schemes have been introduced at national and state levels.

IV “Protecting Parental Rights”

The Christian Coalition calls for enactment of a “Parental Rights Act” to clarify the “right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children,” including education, health care, discipline and religious training. Obvious intent: to attack secular curricula, buttress prayerful parents who deny ill children medical care or who engage in biblically-backed physical violence. While a federal law is urged, a number of state legislators are trying to add “parental rights” amendments to state constitutions.

Reviled in this section of the contract is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 180 nations but awaits U.S. ratification. In part thanks to the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly, ratification is going nowhere in the U.S. Senate.

V “Family-Friendly Tax Relief”

The Christian Coalition is the main lobbyist for the proposed pronatalist $500 tax credit for children. “Christian Coalition also supports in concept a flat or flattened tax with a generous personal exemption for children as an ultimate goal. . . .”

VI “Restoring Respect for Human Life”

The Christian Coalition forced the recent Congressional debate over so-called “partial-birth abortions,” even defining the terminology. This piece of legislation, which would endanger the lives of about 450 pregnant women a year unlucky enough to develop health or life-threatening complications late in their pregnancy requiring abortion (such as carrying brainless fetuses), is expected to be vetoed by the President. The bill would subject doctors to up to two years in prison. The Christian Coalition, of course, wants a complete ban on abortion. For now the group would settle for removing rape and incest from the exceptions of the Hyde Amendment, which cuts off Medicaid funding for most abortions.

“Defunding” Planned Parenthood is another as yet unsuccessful battlecry.

VII “Encouraging Support of Private Charities”

This section presents the most serious threat to the constitutional separation of church and state. Various hair-raising schemes fall under the Christian Coalition’s contract as: “Encouraging Support of Private Charities: Enactment of legislation to enhance contributions to private charities as a first step toward transforming the bureaucratic welfare state into a system of private and faith-based compassion.”

What does this mean? The Religious Right wants religious groups and churches not only to raid the public till, but to take over secular social services. This would be easily accomplished if “unmandated funds” for welfare in the form of block grants to states is passed in the federal budget.

The camel’s nose is already under the tent. There is precedent in a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court permitting federal funds to subsidize abstinence programs for public school students by religious groups. Local governments often contract with churches to provide shelters and other services for the homeless or children. Religion gets the credit; the taxpayers get billed.

Section 104 of the recently vetoed welfare bill–authored by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-MO, a Christian Coalition cheerleader–authorized houses of worship to completely take over some government-funded welfare services. Persons on welfare would use government vouchers and certificates to pay for religious “worship, instruction or proselytization” activities.

All this is advanced as a way to prevent states from “discriminating” against an institution because of its “religious character.”

Taxpayers would be forced to fund religious charities, or alternately would be allowed to “tithe” through their taxes to religious groups.

“. . . if given the choice between having their tax dollars subsidize government welfare programs or subsidize private charitable programs, many would prefer to designate the money to a private charity of their choice. Christian Coalition urges the United States Congress to enact legislation to give taxpayers this opportunity.”

In this manner, avers the coalition, “private charities would compete on an equal footing with government welfare programs for the portion of the federal budget that is allocated to poverty programs, thereby increasing competition.”

Paradoxically, the Religious Right is seeking to “deprivatize” religion (establish state-funded churches). Public social services would be destroyed; religious programs would be publicly-funded! Religion will get the credit; beneficiaries will be proselytized; taxpayers will get you-know-what.

These schemes are not going away. Michigan Gov. John Engler, an arch-conservative Catholic who basically abolished state welfare services, approved a multimillion-dollar contract last fall with the Salvation Army to care for the state’s homeless population. Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice has established a “Faith and Families” project in which religious social service agencies are funded. U.S. Sens. John Ashcroft and Dan Coats have introduced a dollar-to-dollar tax credit for donations to charities serving the poor.

VIII “Restricting Pornography”

While it appears its claims of children’s access to pornography on the Internet are greatly exaggerated, coalition “suggestions” are prevailing or being debated.

IX “Privatizing the Arts”

“The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Legal Services Corporation should become voluntary organizations funded through private contributions.”

While this campaign is on the back burner, funding has been dramatically cut. The bizarre inclusion of Legal Services Corporation under “arts” funding was apparently meant to camouflage the Christians’ special interest in abolishing federal legal assistance to the poor. Perhaps the Corporation is seen as “competition” for dollars the coalition wants to go only to churches. But its main criticism is that the Corporation provides divorce services to the poor, which is contrary to the religious views of Robertson and Reed. The Corporation was not abolished but it lost significant funding last fall.

X “Crime Victim Restitution”

The Christian Coalition urges Congress to condition “receipt of federal prison construction funding by the states on enactment of work and study requirements.” It sounds laudable but this language camouflages programs such as Alabama’s infamous new “chain gang” and plans by Wis. Gov. Tommy Thompson and other Religious Right governors to sell prison labor to campaign cronies or the highest bidder. What has this to do with religion? Nothing, unless you consider the way religion, as Robert Owen put it, has a way of hardening hearts. But the authors of the Contract On The Family know God is on their side.

Ralph Reed claimed responsibility for the surprise Religious Right takeover during the off-year 1994 elections. The Christian Coalition organizes through fundamentalist churches–and is hoping to do more with Catholic churches–using a perfect, ready-made captive audience as the target for its voter registration drives, and distribution of biased election-eve legislative “scorecards.”

Reflecting the infiltration by the Christian Coalition of the Republican Party, many governors and members of Congress endorse by word or action major portions of the Christian Coalition’s Contract on the Family. The Kansas Republican Party, for example, recently adopted a party platform that could have been written by Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan, according to press observers, including: constitutional amendments to ban abortion and force prayer in schools, support for school vouchers and creationism, and elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.

A c(4) lobbying group should not be allowed to organize through c(3) tax-exempt groups like churches. Politically active churches should not be allowed to retain tax-exempt status. Should elections and legislation be dominated by out-of-control fundamentalist and Catholic churches? Should churches be allowed to use their tax-exempt fortunes to topple our secular Constitution and establish “One Nation Under God”?

For now, the Christian Coalition has succeeded only in swamping Congress with legislation, failing thus far in accomplishing most of its ends. But its means are grave cause for concern.

The writer is editor of Freethought Today.  

Freedom From Religion Foundation