Government and Charities

It was with great joy, President Bush said on Jan. 29, that he was announcing his plan to encourage private charitable agencies, both religious and secular. His basic policy is not new, but his applications of it are. Collaboration has been going on for generations between private social work agencies, including some sponsored by churches, and government at federal, state and local levels. To expand this collaboration, the president has now established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. As long as there are secular alternatives, he said, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis, and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission.

To encourage this competition, the President has issued an executive order designed, as he put it, to clear away the bureaucratic barriers that make private groups hesitate to work with the departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development.


The President’s plan deserves support if it means more help for the poor and for the solution of social problems. It also deserves support if it means a more equal positioning for faith-based agencies, so that in areas like counseling and job training, where they are not currently treated equally, they may be so.

All the same, and predictably, reservations about the plan have been expressed even by some private agencies. There are at least five questions.

Would this plan mean blurring the line between church and state? No. At least not necessarily. Blurring the line is a buzz phrase that itself blurs two pivotal questions: what line are we talking about, and whose line is blurred? Is it the line drawn by the American Civil Liberties Union?

In fact, the constitutional line is indistinct, as Chief Justice Warren Burger indicated in 1971. Writing for the majority in Lemon v. Kurtzman and holding unconstitutional certain Pennsylvania and Rhode Island programs that aided the secular part of the education given in church-related schools, the chief justice said, Candor compels acknowledgment, moreover, that we can only dimly perceive the lines of demarcation in this extraordinarily sensitive area of constitutional law.

This description of the constitutional line is even truer today30 years and almost 30 important Supreme Court decisions later. The national consensus on that line is both important and narrow. Federal and state governments cannot establish official churches, cannot prefer one religion over another, cannot deny atheists what they give to believers and cannot force anyone to pray or not to pray.

Beyond that, the spectrum of opinions about permissive collaboration between government and religious organizations in dealing with the needs of the poor, ignorant, orphaned, elderly, disabled, addicted and derelict is as wide as the spectrum of light and darkness. In the last 30 years, however, there has been considerable movement of popular, academic and governmental opinion toward the end of the spectrum that favors collaboration as long as government does not breach the wall against establishment, discrimination and coercion.

Would the plan mean that private agencies will be expected to do what government should do? Mr. Bush says it will not: Government has important responsibilities for public health or public order or civil rights and government will never be replaced by charities and community groups.

Right. The provision of food, clothing, shelter and medical care for the poor is the government’s responsibility. Private agencies can furnish safety nets for those the government does not reach, but they are the secondary providers, not the main ones.

Would the plan provide additional funds or just shift around the monies already available? Unless there are additional funds, the plan will be a mirage. The poor won’t be getting more help unless there is more money.

Would faith-based agencies be required to make unacceptable compromises? Agencies can refuse any aid that comes with hampering strings attached. If regulations require them to deny their identity, they should decline to collaborate.

They should not, however, expect total funding for their programs. Government can say, in effect: We’ll give you the soup, but you have to provide the kitchen and the workers. (It need not say: You can’t have a crucifix or biblical texts on the wall.) If government provided all the money, it would call the tune. Faith-based groups must make a significant contribution, if there is to be real collaboration.

Should the plan support such projects as the drug rehabilitation programs of controversial groups like the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam? Yes, if they get results and the secular alternatives of which the President spoke are also available. By their fruits you shall know them (Mt. 7:20) is a good norm for all agencies, public and private.

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