Faith-Based Initiative Should Be Abolished, Not Renamed

FFRF Protests Pious One-Upmanship by Political Candidates

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), today condemned Barack Obama’s “gratuitous” pandering and his pledge to expand and rename George Bush’s faith-based initiative. The Foundation is a nonpartisan educational organization working to keep church and state separate, which has taken the lead in legal challenges against the faith-based initiative.

Statement by Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor:

Just as seven years ago the Foundation condemned Pres. George W. Bush’s creation of his misguided “faith-based initiative,” today the Foundation protests the shortsightedness of candidate Barack Obama in endorsing its continuation.

This is the wrong direction for our country. The next president should have the integrity and courage to back off from Bush’s fiasco and abolish the so-called faith-based initiative. It has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, has injected religion into politics, deprived needy clients of the best help, and has punched a huge hole in America’s vaunted “wall of separation between church and state.”

It’s lovely to say, as Obama does, that “I believe deeply in the separation of church and state.” But actions speak louder than words. There is negligible difference between Obama’s and Bush’s stated provisos on the faith-based initiative. Like Obama, Bush claimed the faith-based initiative would not allow religious groups to use public grants to proselytize or discriminate against clients, and that public money going to places of worship was only to be used for secular programs. But there is no accountability and no monitoring provisions, as the GAO audit of 2006 documented.

It’s also fine for Obama to say the government and its recipients are going to follow the law. But every day at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we field complaints about violations of the separation between church and state even over established law, such as school prayer. Obama offers no plan for monitoring the constitutional pitfall of a “partnership” between religion and government.

The Foundation has taken and won many court challenges against the faith-based initiative. For instance, a federal judge in our Faith Works case in Milwaukee ruled in 2002 that $800,000 in direct federal subsidy to a ministry that existed to “bring homeless addicts directly to Christ” was unconstitutional. The funds were spent (and wasted) by the time we won the case. In 2005, we halted the final federal grant to MentorKids USA, in which volunteer mentors had to sign a statement that they believed literally in the creation story before they could go on to openly proselytize children of prisoners. We stopped a “parish nursing program” in Montana in 2003, and in 2007 a “chaplaincy” in Indiana set up to minister to state employees. Important and pioneering as our legal cases have been, they are a mere drop in the bucket in terms of the public financing of proselytization under the faith-based scheme.

Obama praises Take Youth Education for Tomorrow, a program run by churches and church schools to teach reading after school and during the summer, largely in church settings. Churches and the offices of religious organizations are innately coercive environments. What about parents who don’t want their children to have to go to church in order to get reading help? When taxpayers are footing the bill, such programs should be held in a neutral setting–there is, after all, no shortage of public schools, already tax-supported!

It is not only the 16% of the population who is nonreligious who is offended. Many Muslims are forbidden to enter Christian churches. Jewish children may not feel comfortable entering a Christian church. Even many Christian sects are uneasy about adherents entering churches run by competing denominations. The idea is fraught with practical and constitutional peril.

Weirdly, Obama criticizes Bush for failing to reach out to faith-based groups about how to apply for federal dollars. Yet this was a cornerstone of Bush’s faith-based initiative. At countless regional and federal faith-based conferences, hands-on technical support at public expense (including “free lunches”) is exactly what the Bush Administration has offered churches and religious agencies for seven expensive years!

Obama says “we all have to work together–Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and nonbeliever alike–to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” True, even laudable. But that does not mean “we” should all be taxed to support churches or religious agencies. Many Americans proudly are descended from immigrants who came here to escape mandatory tithes and taxation in support of churches against their consent.

Obama’s tone is more balanced than Bush’s. But he spoils the effect by criticizing those “who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square.” Secularists have never said faith can’t be displayed in public. We do insist that faith should not be part of government, subsidized by government or promoted by government. The genius of the founders of our secular republic was to recognize that keeping religion and government separate is the way to prevent religious corruption and coercion.

Obama’s reference to needing “people of faith on Capitol Hill”–as if Capitol Hill weren’t at the moment dominated by “people of faith”–is both a naive platitude and exclusionary. How would religionists feel if Obama had said: “We need people without faith on Capitol Hill”?

Let’s abolish the faith-based initiative and go back to the days before John Ashcroft first proposed so-called “charitable choice.” Religious social services have always been free to bid for social service grants, but they were expected to create a secular arm, keep separate books and take their crosses down. A return to the status quo is the simple answer to the mess created by Bush’s faith-based initiative.

Obama’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is merely a renaming of Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Ironically, nearly everything Obama criticizes Bush’s initiative for (“it was used to promote partisan interests,” “it has to be a real partnership–not a photo-op”) can be said of Obama’s plan and his “photo-op” speech today. Same taxi, different driver. Where’s that vaunted “change” that Obama’s campaign has been promising?

On a related topic, we are appalled at the arrogant, presumptuous hubris of politicians who claim to know “God’s will.” Obama joins an unfortunately long line of political candidates and public officials (which includes more than its fair share of despots), who talk about “fulfilling God’s will” and “doing the Lord’s work.” Why are these politicians so special that they possess a direct pipeline to a divinity? The presidential candidates have crossed the line between acknowledging sincere personal faith to wearing faith on their sleeves and unapologetic political pandering. Both John McCain and Obama have been burned by their past close associations with pastors. Why can’t they see that religion mixed with politics is always a combustible mixture?

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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