Faith-Based White House Creates Level Praying Field (Jan/Feb 2003)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting “faith-based pork,” and the public funding of “faith-based boondoggles” through the White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

At the most recent conference held in Denver on January 13, free lunches were provided for the religious participants interested in applying for funding, who numbered about 1,000.

In a revealing slip of the tongue reported by the Denver Post, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office, praised Pres. Bush at the event for creating a “level praying field” (he later said he meant “level playing field”).

Attorney General John Ashcroft suspended all duties in order to attend the gathering and deliver a pep talk for religion at the public-sponsored event. To a chorus of “amens,” Ashcroft told the religious participants:

“Out of fear, ignorance and occasional bigotry, faith-based groups have been prohibited from competing for federal funding on a level playing field with secular groups.”

When asked how freedom of conscience would be protected at federally-funded religious programs, Ashcroft responded: “Any citizen who’s offended . . . can leave the service.”

The Foundation has asked the office of faith-based funding for full disclosure of its budget, and the cost of White House faith-based conferences. The Foundation also asked the office to cancel any future faith-based conferences.

“Not only are your office’s schemes largely untested, but they are for the most part being carried out without the approval or oversight of the U.S. Congress,” the Foundation wrote Towey.

The Foundation has won the only explicit challenge of direct faith-based funding to be fully adjudicated, challenging federal funding of Faith Works in Milwaukee. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. McCallum & Faith Works, 00-C-617-C, Jan. 7, 2002.

The federal judge held up Faith Works as the type of public-funded indoctrination it is illegal to fund, although as a candidate Pres. Bush singled out Faith Works as a prototype of faith-based funding.

Bush sidestepped Congress, where his “faith-based initiatives” has been stalled, by issuing a Dec. 12 executive order, “Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-based and Community Organizations,” mandating:

“No organization should be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of Federal financial assistance under social service programs.”

Religious groups would be allowed to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of religion.

After he issued the order, Bush told a rally made up of clergy: “God loves you and I love you and you can count on us both!”

The order also would apparently allow institutions receiving Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Critics such as U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., responded: “All Americans should find abhorrent a government policy that allows for a religious or racial litmus test when hiring with taxpayer money a person to serve soup. Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs.”

The order encompasses the broad range of social service programs–child care, foster care, services to people with disabilities, transportation services, job training, information, referral and counseling services, meal preparation, health support services, literacy and mentoring, services relating to juvenile delinquency and crime prevention–including services relating to domestic violence, and housing assistance.

It applies to the office of the Attorney General, and Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development.

In the usual paradoxical language of “faith-based initiatives,” the order forbids the government from meddling with the character of proselytizing groups, while saying proselytizers must respect the dictates of the Establishment Clause.

The order states: Groups “that engage in inherently religious activities . . . must offer those services separately in time or location” and that participation must be “voluntary.”

It then mandates that “faith-based organizations” shall be eligible for full social service funding “without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character,” and may “carry out its mission, including the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs, provided that it does not use direct Federal financial assistance to support any inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.”

No religious groups need to remove or alter “religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols.” Each may “retain religious terms in its organization’s name, select its board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in its organization’s mission statements and other chartering or governing documents.”

Commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president: “This executive order amounts to an endorsement of public-funded religious indoctrination.”

The latest federal grants meted out under Bush’s “faith-based initiative” scheme involved $2.2 million to “promote marriage” given in early January to 12 states and a variety of groups, including religious organizations, by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Another disturbing development was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s public statement on January 12 that the courts have gone overboard in keeping “God” out of government.

Speaking at a Knights of Columbus parade in Fredericksburg, Va., where his son Paul is a priest, the Catholic judge criticized the 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit for ruling unconstitutional the addition of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Scalia said such changes should be wrought legislatively, not by a court. He averred that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for God to be stripped from public life:

“That is contrary to our whole tradition,” he said, citing “In God We Trust” on currency, presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, Congressional chaplains and tax exemption for churches.

Scalia sang “God Bless America” with the crowd of several hundred people.

Freedom From Religion Foundation