As the baseball season begins, we can look forward to "You Make the Call" segments during slow moments of televised games. For example, viewers shown a bunt that comes to rest exactly on the foul line will then be asked: Is the ball fair or foul?
Washington officials are playing umpire under the Charitable Choice legislation now in place. They have to decide whether a program is in fair territory or whether it offers ineligible "religious instruction." Their job will get no easier if the White House's faith-based initiative office stays on the course it announced a month ago and has been quiet about since.
Last week, I visited a class on budgeting; it's part of a program my church runs for folks who have been on welfare or in prison. The instructor began by distinguishing among needs, wants and desires. He quoted the apostle Paul as saying, "If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that," and further explained his classification by citing other Bible verses.
The instructor stressed the importance of taking care of family members by quoting a verse from Paul's first epistle to Timothy: "If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith." The instructor taught about the need to pay debts by quoting from Psalm 37: "The wicked borrows and does not pay back, but the righteous is gracious."
The 10 people in the class seemed impressed that they were not learning just "seven habits for saving" or some other best-selling compilation of human lore, but wisdom imparted from God. So you make the call: Is this religious instruction? If this program proved to be the most effective in Austin, Texas, should it be eligible for a government grant to pay not for the instruction itself, but for lightbulbs and lunches?
What will the Bush administration's umpires decide? During February, folks on the left got in the face of John DiIulio, who heads the White House Office on Faith-based and Community Initiatives. They jawed at him like latter-day Billy Martins, and he responded by declaring that balls on the line would be foul.
Now some key White House and congressional leaders are working on a way to placate protesting players from the evangelical team. The beef, basically, is that instructors in other programs are allowed to base their teaching on anything from the sayings of Chairman Mao to the wisdom of Mickey Mouse. Why the discrimination against Scripture, a bias opposed to the First Amendment's establishment of a level playing field for all groups?
The debate is broadening. Last week, the newly formed Coalition for Compassion, developed under Free Congress Foundation auspices and made up largely of conservatives, agreed to a statement applauding "the initiative of President Bush to eliminate barriers to the full participation of religiously inspired agencies and individuals in the effort to address human needs."
The resolution supported "enactment of new tax policies aimed at encouraging more charitable giving." It then took a strong stand against requiring any religious organization "to surrender or suspend its constitutionally protected rights to freedom of religious belief and practice as a condition of participating in any government-financed program to aid those in need."
The statement emphasized that "non-discrimination with respect to religion must be maintained in all relations between government and faith-based organizations. ... The only fair criterion for assessing the right of any provider to participate in the delivery of government-financed social service is its effectiveness in meeting the needs of the beneficiaries."
The resolution laid out a workable way to fight discrimination: "Government funds must not be used to pay for religious instruction or instructional material. But a faith-based organization that accomplishes socially beneficial purposes through a pervasively religious approach may receive funding for other expenses equivalent to what other faith-based or secular government grantees receive."
That's equitable, but it won't please those who have bought into the notion that the First Amendment is an anti-religious decree, or those who fear biblical Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. Not until the World Series rolls around in October might we know the winners and losers in this potentially divisive debate. Or, tax credits and social vouchers may receive new emphasis from those looking for a way to be uniters rather than dividers
And by the way, a bunt that stops on the foul line is fair.