Danger in funding the FBOs

January 31, 2001|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- This is the week for the new administration to push tax funding for so-called faith-based social services, so expect photo ops, testimonials and all the standard hoopla that presidents trot out to launch their pet ideas.

But like the cat that can't find its box, this is an especially troublesome pet, though it shows signs of enjoying bipartisan favor even so. Al Gore ballyhooed the notion just about as loudly as George W. Bush did.

The danger here is that in running right up to the wall of separation between church and state, the political momentum will crash through. Details will make the difference and those are still to come, but the potential for great mischief is inherent in the idea.

The assumption is that social services run by faith-based organizations -- in the lingo of the issue, FBOs -- can be both more efficient than government-run agencies and, because of the presumed ardor of their commitment, more effective.

The risks are twofold. One is that federal funding to sectarian agencies will be at the expense of the broadly based social services only government can organize and afford. The other is that, especially if such civic options diminish, needy clients will in effect be forced into programs that mean to evangelize them as much as they intend to help them.

If big money is dangled, it is not hard to imagine a nasty fight eventually breaking out among religions for advantage in the scramble for public funds -- precisely the divisive competition the Founding Fathers sought to prevent by strictly separating church and state.

The need for this radical step is not clear. As it is, religious organizations can and do use federal funding for a variety of social programs -- the Salvation Army, for instance, or Catholic Charities, which receives more than $1 billion annually to provide social services.

All that's asked now is that the FBOs keep such activities as proselytizing and worship separate from their service delivery, and even the rules for that were loosened in 1996 in legislation sponsored by the evangelical then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.

Arguably, the charitable impulse is not lessened but in fact heightened by separating it from the self-interest a faith has in enhancing itself.

The call for this step is faint. Even Mr. Ashcroft's indulgent Charitable Choice legislation excited no great movement from previously uninvolved faiths. The 1999 National Congregations Study found only 3 percent of congregations receiving public funds for social services.

The idea apparently gets its major boost from the fact that both presidential campaigns found it polled well. It offered a shortcut for both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush to mark themselves off from an outgoing administration that, at least in conservative religious circles, was suspected as being the work of the devil.

This an idea worth a serious look, but it ought to be approached by a public wary of mixing religion and politics and by religions prudently fearful of the implications for their independence that could come with public funding.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail is teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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