Posted: Jul 24, 2001 12:00 AM
The headlines claimed last Thursday's passage of H.R. 7, the major legislative vehicle for the White House's faith-based initiative, as a Bush win, and it was. But in a deeper sense, Al Gore won. Last year both George W. Bush and Al Gore agreed that faith-based poverty-fighters should be eligible for government funding. They disagreed on whether all faiths or only some should be encouraged. The Democratic position was that groups featuring worship, religious teaching or evangelism as integral parts of their program were ineligible. The Republican position was that the government should not pay for lunchtime preaching at a homeless shelter, but it could pay for the soup and the electricity to heat it. Last Thursday the House of Representatives passed a compromise bill: In essence, Bush could have the rhetoric, plus one paragraph, and Gore the reality. The purpose statement of H.R. 7, the successful bill, is utterly Bush-like: "to allow religious organizations to participate in the administration and distribution of assistance without impairing the religious character and autonomy of such organizations." The details, though, are pure Gore: "No funds ... shall be expended for sectarian instruction, worship or proselytization. If the religious organization offers such an activity, it shall be ... offered separate from the program funded." Wait a minute -- doesn't telling a poor evangelical organization that an eligible program can't include religious teaching or evangelism have some effect on "religious character and autonomy"? H.R. 7 also stipulates that if a person comes to a faith-based program and doesn't like its religious flavor, those who run the program have to provide a secular alternative. Secular programs don't have to provide religious alternatives; why can't we let successful faith-based programs continue doing what has made them successful, without having to set up dual curricula? It's true that H.R. 7 bans the most overt kinds of anti-religious bias. Catholic organizations could keep crucifixes on the wall. But it's a superficial religious tolerance that allows religious symbols and bans religious teaching. It's also true that H.R. 7 includes one paragraph that provides a voucher option. That's much better than centralizing power in Washington, but that paragraph is unlikely to make it through a Senate controlled by Democrats. The bias in grants matters both in principle and practice. The principled problem is that some religious groups would be preferred over others, and that violates the first amendment ban on the "establishment" of religion. Why should theologically liberal groups receive official favor while evangelical and orthodox Jewish organizations become second-class citizens? The problem in practice is that some of the most effective faith-based poverty groups, those with a pervasive faith that lights up every aspect of their work, would be left out in the cold. Some observers say that these programs would still have wiggle room, that the gag rule will not be tightly enforced. But most faith-based leaders are honest sorts who stop at red lights even if no police are around. Besides, H.R.7 requires grant recipients to attest in writing that they have not talked about God on government time. A future administration could line up assorted divines like defense contractors, charging them with misuse of government bucks. If H.R. 7 eventually becomes law, some of us -- and all of us -- will be hurt. Ex-cons who could have avoided committing new crimes, alcoholics and addicts whose lives could have changed, and single moms who could have made it economically will not have the help they could have received. Many will return to their ruts. The rest of us will pay in terms of muggings, urban decay and hopeless children. But there's still time to provide both fairness and new hope. The voucher provision, which does not restrict the free expression of faith, must be protected. An even better tax credit provision could be added, but only those with great faith in the Senate will be asking for that.