Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The State of the Faith-Based Initiative



February 6, 2006

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, President Bush never mentioned one of the signature issues he has regularly touted in past years: the Faith-Based and Community Initiative whose aim is to secure the equal treatment in law of faith-based and secular social service providers. It has received little attention lately in the media and even less in Congress. This raises a question. Is the real state of the faith-based initiative strong or withering? After many years with only a few small but significant victories, the initiative appears to have been consigned to limbo by partisan, polarized politics.

Why is this? Since its launch exactly five years ago last week, the key ideas behind the Initiative have seldom been fully grasped in the corridors of power or by the public at large. Equal treatment for faith-based programs requires a new commitment to religious freedom that many in America simply may not be ready to accept. Others, however, see equal treatment for all faiths in public life—with no bias for secularism—to be the great promise of the First Amendment that is urgently needed and long overdue.

The simple idea behind the Initiative is that there should be no prohibition against the public funding of effective programs that are shaped by the deep and diverse faith commitments of citizens and taxpayers, provided this opportunity is open to all and that certain safeguards are built in to ensure accountability and religious freedom. Government rules have to change so all programs, whatever their orientation—Baptist, Buddhist, secular—are welcomed as equal partners working for the public good. They should be free to employ distinctive faith perspectives and methodologies to tackle complex social concerns such as drug addiction, unemployment, and poverty. The government should show no bias for or against religion in recognizing the freedom of diverse "Armies of Compassion" to hire staff of their choice and run their programs in accordance with their deepest convictions. That is true religious freedom for all Americans.

Has the president given up on this vision? Or does he think Congress, led by his own party, won't or can't deliver? Now is the time to lead boldly and to advance these reforms with the same determination that the administration has given to other priorities.

Much progress is needed on many fronts. The president's own to-do list for the Initiative from last March provides a good place to begin. Important advances made at the federal level since 2002 need to be implemented at the state and local levels. Without follow-through by all levels of government, faith-based organizations at the grassroots and the people they serve will not benefit from these new freedoms.

Second, the president promised faith-based leaders last year that if Congress did not act to protect their right to hire staff committed to their religious mission, he would use his authority to ensure that the government honors this basic civil right of faith-based organizations. Leaders are watching closely to see if the administration will keep its promise to address this lingering concern that makes many organizations reluctant to partner with government.

Finally, the president should work creatively with leaders of both parties to overcome the partisan gridlock that has stymied genuine progress. Responding to Hurricane Katrina, the president and Congress put equal treatment into practice by permitting uprooted families and children to use federally funded vouchers to attend faith-based or secular schools of their choice. Both parties should come together to support similar programs for social services to place the federal government solidly on the side of choice and religious freedom for all people in need. Without such leadership the full promise of the faith-based initiative will continue to remain unfulfilled.

—Stephen Lazarus, Director of The Civitas Programs
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”