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Monday, March 13, 2006

Government Funded Faith

Regardless of political or religious affiliation, the news that programs funded through President Bush's faith-based initiatives office should be celebrated. The success of such projects shows that they are badly needed and that America truly does have the compassion to reach out to those within our society that are suffering or in need. It shows that we have not left "the least among us" behind entirely.

Yet I still have some naggling concerns about the way (and the reasons) the White House is doing this. For one thing, it is outright misleading. In its guidelines for "Partnering with the Federal Government" it states:

The United States Supreme Court has said that faith-based organizations may not use direct government support to support "inherently religious" activities. Don't be put off by the term "inherently religious" - it's simply a phrase that has been used by the courts in church-state cases. Basically, it means you can not use any part of a direct Federal grant to fund religious worship, instruction, or proselytization. Instead, organizations may use government money only to support the non-religious social services that they provide. Therefore, faith-based organizations that receive direct governmental funds should take steps to separate, in time or location, their inherently religious activities from the government-funded services that they offer. Such organizations should also carefully account for their use of all government money.


This flies in the face of the Lemon v. Kurtzman case. This case struck down a 1969 law in Rhode Island that allowed the state to pay teachers' salaries, even when they worked for a religious school. The decision struck down a similar Pennsylvania law, as well. The reason was not that the teachers were involved in an "inherently religious" activity. The reason given was:

the cumulative impact of the entire relationship arising under the statutes involves excessive entanglement between government and religion.


The Court stated:

The entanglement in the Rhode Island program arises because of the religious activity and purpose of the church-affiliated schools, especially with respect to children of impressionable age in the primary grades, and the dangers that a teacher under religious control and discipline poses to the separation of religious from purely secular aspects of elementary education in such schools. These factors require continuing state surveillance to ensure that the statutory restrictions are obeyed and the First Amendment otherwise respected. Furthermore, under the Act, the government must inspect school records to determine what part of the expenditures is attributable to secular education, as opposed to religious activity, in the event a nonpublic school's expenditures per pupil exceed the comparable figures for public schools.


In other words, you have a school set up for the express purpose of provide religiously-based education. Even though the teaching of, for example, Social Studies is not "inherently religious" in nature, and the intent of the law is not to give preference to church-schools, the effect of giving the schools money is that the government would have to basically take over the administration of the school in order to make sure that no money was used for religious purposes.


The entanglement in the Pennsylvania program also arises from the restrictions and surveillance necessary to ensure that teachers play a strictly nonideological role and the state supervision of nonpublic school accounting procedures required to establish the cost of secular, as distinguished from religious, education. In addition, the Pennsylvania statute has the further defect of providing continuing financial aid directly to the church-related schools. Historically, governmental control and surveillance measures tend to follow cash grant programs, and here the government's post-audit power to inspect the financial records of church-related schools creates an intimate and continuing relationship between church and state.


This is pretty much the same argument. "Government control and surveillance measures tend to follow cash grant programs" - this is not an argument over whether or not it is the government's duty to provide for education. That is immaterial. What is at risk is the independence of the church.

When the government gives the church money, the government also has a duty to make sure the church is using it properly. This is acknowledged under the current program. Here's an excerpt from the news story linked to earlier:
Last year, The Door's students' math skills improved by 35%, and reading skills increased by 18%, according to a Door progress report. Renewal of grants such as The Door's is contingent on showing that a program is effective.
That's a good thing (both the improvement in scores and the oversight of federal money)- and we can only wonder why it isn't considered when Halliburton is renewing contracts. The problem, as we have seen with secular organizations and federal dollars, is that there tends to be "organizational creep".

Organizational creep is merely a managerial term to describe two things: 1) The manner in which an organization's goals and missions tend to expand over time; and 2) the manner in which the people within the organization tend to quit upholding the goals and missions of an organization. These things happen naturally, because human nature is to move on to greater challenges and to slowly relax rules and norms to avoid continued struggle. This is why program managers have to constantly be on guard against organizational creep and create programs of retraining and renewal to pull the entire organization back to where it began.

Here's an organizational problem. Next year, students at The Door will not have a 35% increase in math skills (because there is a limit to how much any skill can be improved). Maybe it will only be 30%. The following year, it's only 20%. A government oversight director says, "Look, you're becoming less and less effective. Something better change or you'll lose your money." What do they do?

Well, they appeal the process. "Look," they say, "The Door has helped hundreds of kids. These are kids who would have been out on the streets and possibly gang-members if we weren't here."

"Ah," says the government, "You're a gang-prevention program. Here are the (very different) rules for that kind of program."

What can The Door do? They either change or close their doors. Soon, they are doing no math or reading and just trying to manage behavioral problems within program constraints. Think it doesn't happen? I saw a wonderful juvenile offender treatment program in Florida totally upended because its non-punative approach was deemed "out-dated" and a new "boot-camp" style approach was adopted. Recidivism rates shot up. Funding slowly dried up as the program became ineffectual.

Lemon showed other concerns for "faith-based initiatives" as well:

Unlike the tax exemption for places of religious worship, upheld in Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, which was based on a practice of 200 years, these innovative programs have self-perpetuating and self-expanding propensities which provide a warning signal against entanglement between government and religion.


That is exactly the organizational creep that I described. It isn't a problem that general faith is being supported - all but the extreme atheists would agree that a bit more faith in America could help a lot of problems. The problem is that, when the government funds faith, the government decides which faith Americans will have a bit more of. That, de facto, leads to government driving religion as a means of accomplishing its ends.

When a church-run organization is dependent on the government for funding, it is no longer a church-run organization. Oh yes, the church still draws up pretty papers and mission statements and plans, but the government is the final arbiter of what is and is not allowed. That is "excessive entanglement". How long after the government gives the church money does the the church become dependent upon the government? How long after that does the church become nothing more than the mouthpiece of the state - with specific churches and denominations seeing their fates rise and fall with the political tide and their ability to back the correct politicla patron?

Yes, these problems exist for non-religiously based organizations. But to put religion and non-religion on the same grounds is to show total ignorance of what religion means. Headstart programs may have problems, but no one ever started a war over Headstart. Religion, on the other hand, has been an excuse for war time and time again.

Churches can, and should, continue with their community service - but they should do so completely independent of governmental control and influence. It is even more troubling that those in charge of determining which organizations receive funds do not seem cognizant of either the dangers or legal restrictions under which they operate.

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