Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative Listing but Not Sunk

In early April, officials in Bradford County, Pennsylvania agreed to bar any public funding of religious activities as part of a settlement in a lawsuit challenging a local “faith-based” ministry for prisoners.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania, and the national law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP, argued that Bradford County and other governmental agencies were unconstitutionally funding The Firm Foundation, a religion-based rehabilitation program active in the Bradford County jail. jail.

In mid-February, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministry case at the federal courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri.

According to an Americans United press release, the organization, representing a group of inmates, inmates’ family members and taxpayers, urged the appellate panel to affirm the June 2006 ruling by Judge Robert W. Pratt that the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa is unconstitutional and violates the separation of church and state. In his ruling, Judge Pratt “found that the publicly funded religious program at Newton transgresses the First Amendment ban on government support for religion,” is unconstitutional and violates the separation of church and state. In his ruling, Judge Pratt “found that the publicly funded religious program at Newton transgresses the First Amendment ban on government support for religion.”

“No American should be pressured by the government to conform to any particular religious viewpoint,” said the executive director of Americans United, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

“Inmates should have access to effective rehabilitation programs that prepare them for life outside prison, no matter what religion they subscribe to. This case has major implications for the Bush ‘faith-based’ initiative. Programs that are pervaded with religion should not get public funds,” he said.

Although neither the Bradford agreement nor the Iowa case will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court soon, sometime before its upcoming summer recess, the Court will hand down a ruling that could significantly shape the future of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. The much trumpeted program, intended by Team Bush to be the centrepiece of his domestic policy agenda, has been taking its fair share of political and legal hits during the past few years. case will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court soon, sometime before its upcoming summer recess, the Court will hand down a ruling that could significantly shape the future of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. The much trumpeted program, intended by Team Bush to be the centrepiece of his domestic policy agenda, has been taking its fair share of political and legal hits during the past few years.

Nevertheless, the administration has steadfastly pushed forward with the initiative by providing several billion in federal grants to religious organizations, offering grant-writing technical assistance to religious groups, establishing faith-based operations in nearly every major federal government agency, and spreading its influence to dozens of states.

In late February, two and a half years after the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed its federal lawsuit challenging the creation of various religion-based offices at federal agencies, the case arrived at the Supreme Court, albeit in a curtailed form. The Court heard oral arguments in the Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case. Jay F. Hein is the current head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

FFRF bases its case on the assertion that the establishment of faith-based offices by the Bush administration violated the First Amendment and that the actions of those offices caused further violations by holding a series of events aimed at helping religious groups win tax support. While this case will not decide the constitutionality of the faith-based initiative, the court will decide whether FFRF has the right to sue in the first place.

In January 2001, when President Bush issued executive orders establishing the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he intended it to be a major step towards reducing the government’s role in providing social services to the poor and needy.

But even prior to the Bush administration, a number of high-profile religious organizations received government money to provide social services to the poor.

The process of bringing religious organizations into the mix was accelerated in 1996 when then President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform legislation that included a “charitable choice” provision, which allowed individual states to work with faith-based and community charities to provide a broader array of social services.

“Under the public radar, federal, state, and local governments are funding, training, and even helping to create religious social service organizations,” the influential National Journal reported earlier this year.

These days, despite these and other legal actions by civil liberties groups; former faith-based official David Kuo’s unsparing account in his bestselling book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, of the politicization of the initiative; and serial changes in leadership at the White House Office, the president’s initiative continues to move along — but has slowed considerably.

During its six years of existence, in lieu of being able to achieve any comprehensive faith-based legislation in Congress in support of it, President Bush has taken to using executive orders to push the initiative forward.

More than $2 billion in federal funding has been doled out to religious organizations for services as extensive as alcohol and drug related treatment programs, “abstinence-only” sex education projects, job training efforts, and “healthy marriage” proposals.

In addition, federal, state and local governments have embarked on a broad campaign to recruit, train, and assist religious charities in writing grant applications, creating non-profit entities, training volunteers and building an infrastructure that would qualify for government grants.

“For faith groups interested in government partnerships, and for everyone interested in the issues of church and state, these are heady times,” Richard Nathan, director of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, said at conference in Washington. “Whether and where the lines can be drawn to separate religious activity from that which can be supported by public funds is complicated, subtle, and very much — especially right now — very much in flux.”

One of author David Kuo’s criticisms of the White House’s handling of the faith-based initiative was that it didn’t follow through on its promise to provide $8 billion to religious organizations. The White House, however, claims that “faith-based organizations can now compete for about $20 billion a year in federally managed programs, and another $55 billion or so in programs managed by state and local governments,” according to the National Journal.

Greg Morris, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, told the magazine that, “direct federal grants to faith-based organisations represent ‘a relatively small piece of federal dollars that go out.'” He noted that, “The biggest piece of the pie is those formula block grants that go out from the federal government to the states, and then there is wide latitude at the state and local level to administrate those funds.”

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, the battle over government funds going to religious organizations will continue for years to come.

While the President Bush may have failed to legislatively institutionalize his faith-based initiative, it has become a major part of the U.S. political and social landscape. Whether Democrats will try to rearrange that landscape remains to be seen. political and social landscape. Whether Democrats will try to rearrange that landscape remains to be seen.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Philip V. said on June 9th, 2007 at 8:29am #

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    Having religious trained personnel available in various institutions to provide spiritual guidance and empathy does not abridge anyone’s freedoms, nor does it establish a state religion, so long as various religions are represented, and so long as all religions have an equal opportunity to apply for funds. The notion that one cannot even speak of religous matters in public space is an absurd toppling of tolerance.

    The problem I have with Bush is that he calls himself a Christian but he is not. He is a murderer, a liar, and a thief. Not only that, but he is using religion as a political wedge to induce people to vote against their own economic interests. Furthermore, his Faith Based Initiative program is nothing more than using religion to cut social programs so there will be more money available for the wealthy elites to steal.

  2. Sanders Kaufman said on June 9th, 2007 at 6:06pm #

    If we have learned nothing else from The GOP and al Quaeda, it’s that religious zealots are our mortal enemies.

  3. Jenny Hurley said on June 9th, 2007 at 6:42pm #

    I have been a Christian all my life – I am still. But the way Bush used the Faith Based Initiative and his calling and having certain preachers at the White House and at the same time his brother Neil and his dad,
    George H W Bush promoting Rev Sun Moon who is the most despilcable person on the planet because Sun Moon says that he, Moon, is the Messiah, is a disgrace. Go to Sun Moon’s website and read some of this terrible sermons. And the Bush family, I have read, promotes Moon for money reasons. Either way, they should NEVER appear with Moon.

    Also, most of this money went to big churches to influence votes in the congregation. Taxpayers were paying for Republican votes. If a preacher or priest needs hundreds of thousands of dollars or many times millions of taxpaayer dollars while we have people without healthcare and food, or even heat — then in my opinion that so-called church is more political than GOD FEARING.

  4. Maxie Ray said on June 10th, 2007 at 2:20pm #

    Phillip V. apparently believes that secular taxpayers ought to pay and must pay for the government/church-wed religious activities of G W Bush’s ‘faith-based’ initiative.

    In regard to his posting the law of the 1st amendment- “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” – how is it that Phillip doesn’t see his contradiction? He seems to think that it is okay as long as ALL sects get a share of the loot.

    Secondly, how is it he makes the claim that Bush is not a Christian? “The problem I have with Bush is that he calls himself a Christian but he is not.”

    Yes he is! Over and over, ad nauseam, Bush asserts as much. He is the best kind of Christian; he is the True Believing, the-world-is-the-battlefield-of-good-vs-evil type of Christian and he has initiated his Holy Crusade on behalf of God to further the nearer approach of The Rapture. Any one who has not yet seen Geo. W. as the counterimage of Osama ben Laden has not studied psychology 101.

    It is the liberal Christians who excuse, and consequently support the fundamentalist lunatics – particularly when they do it unconciously -that scare the hell out of me.

  5. Philip V. said on June 12th, 2007 at 10:32am #

    Maxie Ray,
    How do I know GW is not a Christian? “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Not by what they say, but by what they do. Taking money away from the needy and giving it to the wealthy, slaughtering innocent civilians, imprisoning and torturing people…all these things tell me that GW is not a Christian, because these actions go against the teachings of Jesus. Your caricature of Christianity is an accurate depiction of the lunatic fringe. They are indeed a caricature of the true faith handed down by the Prophets, by Jesus, and by the Apostles. Those teachings have been in the past, and continue to be corrupted and used unscrupulously. I don’t deny that. However, don’t lump all of us in with these nuts. These groups do not represent the core teachings of Jesus Christ. And they give the rest of us Christians a bad name.

    Notwithstanding that, your point is well taken with respect to faith based initiative funding. Would you be willing then to assent to allowing clerics into public institutions without federal funding? My point is, how far do you want to marginalize and persecute people of faith, by tying their hands and taping their mouths shut? Is that tolerance? When I am forbidden to pray in public who is being intolerant? You have to disagree with something in order to tolerate it. The notion that we can never disagree silences everyone and therefore turns the notion of tolerance on its head. Tolerance then becomes totalitarian.

  6. Maxie Ray said on June 14th, 2007 at 3:33am #

    “Keep church and state forever separate.” –Ulysses S. Grant

  7. Blogula Rasa » Blue State: Life is Good. Red State: Life Sucks. Why? said on June 22nd, 2007 at 11:12pm #

    […] more disillusioned – David Kuo is the example I have in mind, but there are plenty of others. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives has mostly failed… to initiate much of […]