Separation of Church and State to Be Bush-Whacked? (Jan/Feb 2001)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has called on President George W. Bush to drop his campaign pledge to establish an unconstitutional Office of Faith-Based Action in the White House. Bush also plans to use federal funds to encourage the 50 governors to establish state versions.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has been touted as the probable appointee for White House director of the Office of Faith-Based Action. In 1997, Goldsmith created a “faith-based” initiative called the Front Porch Alliance, with a staff of nine and a budget of $800,000, which doled out $300,000 in grants to churches and inner-city groups.

Creation of the office is in concert with Bush’s pledge to spend $8 billion in expanding “charitable choice,” in which churches and religious groups receiving federal funding to provide social services may now proselytize. Bush’s transition spokesperson Scott McClellan said on Jan. 7 that “reaching out to faith-based groups that have a proven record of saving and changing lives is a top priority of President-elect Bush.”

The primary engineer of “charitable choice” was John Ashcroft, Bush’s controversial nominee for Attorney General, who as U.S. Senator pushed through a “charitable choice” amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act at the eleventh hour. The Freedom From Religion Foundation launched what is believed to be the nation’s second challenge of “charitable choice,” in an October lawsuit against public funding of “Faith Works,” a religious group that received Bush’s blessings during a campaign stop.

Bush met with 30 ministers and religious leaders in a closed meeting in Austin on Dec. 20 to discuss his plans to greatly enlarge “charitable choice” and the role of churches in federally-funded welfare programs.

Bush has pledged to end regulations prohibiting religious groups from participating in federal programs, to make it easier for churches and charities to be given tax funds to operate federal programs, and to create tax breaks to increase charitable donations.

Many clergy members have indicated wariness of the concept. “There are many religious traditions in this land. How do we guarantee that minority religions have the same access that majority religions have?” the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, told the New York Times (Dec. 21).

The American Jewish Committee’s Richard Foltin warned: “There’s no way to harness this power of religious organizations without doing damage.” Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said: “We think it’s unconstitutional [and] will result in invasive regulation and excessive entanglement between church and state.”

A survey released in January by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows a slim majority of Americans repudiates the concept of “charitable choice.” Thirty-one percent said such an arrangement is always a bad idea, and a quarter, 23%, approved public money to religious social services–but only if they stay away from religious messages. Forty-four percent said giving government money to religious groups is a good idea. The poll of 1,507 adults by Public Agenda was taken in November, and has an error margin of 3%.

Bush’s first official act as president-elect was attending a special prayer service in his honor. At that December service, Mark Craig, pastor of a Dallas Methodist church, compared Bush to Moses: “You were chosen by God, as was Moses, to lead the people.”

The Foundation wrote the president-elect on Dec. 15, reminding him that the U.S. Constitution provides for a strictly secular presidential oath of office, and asking that Bush not use “religious ad libs” or the bible in taking the godless oath. The letter generated some national coverage.

Art. 2, Sect. 1, Clause 8 provides: “Before he enter on the execution of his office he shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

“With sycophantic ministers saying Bush was ‘chosen by God, as was Moses, to lead the people,’ we think it is important to remind Bush that it will be his job to protect, preserve and defend the separation of church and state,” noted Foundation president Anne Gaylor.

The Foundation followed up with a letter in early January to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who administers the presidential oath, noting that “longtime persistence in an abuse of the Constitution is not rationale for continuing such a violation.”

The Jan. 20 inauguration began with an invocation and ended with a benediction. Afterward, Bush signed his first two directives, one on ethics regulations for government employees, the other designating Sunday, Jan. 21, as a National Day of Prayer.

His prayer proclamation called on Americans “to bow our heads in humility before our heavenly father, a God who calls us not to judge our neighbors, but to love them, to ask His guidance upon our nation and its leaders in every level of government.”

The Bush Administration in January also maintained it would press for passage of its private school voucher proposal, despite advice by GOP strategists that vouchers would face an uphill battle, and vocal opposition by Democrats in the narrowly divided Congress. Bush’s first legislative priority will be “education reform,” including a proposal to give families in failing schools $1,500 in federal money to use for any education expense. If public schools fail to measure up to Bush standards for three consecutive years, parents would be given vouchers to send kids elsewhere.

Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, told CNN’s “Late Edition” on Dec. 17: “I think maybe the word [vouchers] is part of the problem. Maybe the word should be ‘scholarship.’ ” Already more than 15,000 children, most living in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, receive public vouchers to attend private (mostly religious) schools, with another 50,000 children given scholarships by rightwing pro-voucher philanthropists.

The term “compassionate conservative,” as Bush describes himself, was coined by advisor Marvin Olasky, a self-described Jewish communist turned born-again Christian, who is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin. Olasky’s book, Compassionate Conservatism (2000), features an introduction by Bush, and reprints a Bush campaign promise to fund religious groups. The term “compassionate conservative” signals support of taxpayer funding to religious groups to provide most government social services, according to an analysis of Olasky’s book by Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe & Mail (Jan. 13, 2001). In a nutshell, Olasky believes poverty is caused not by a lack of money but by a lack of moral values.

To register your views on the creation of an Office of Faith-Based Action in the White House, you may write President George W. Bush, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC 20502. The White House comment line is 202/456-1111.

Freedom From Religion Foundation