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

The Discrimination Olympics

Stephen Lazarus


April 9, 2001

If advocating discrimination against religious groups were an Olympic sport, some opponents of Charitable Choice would be serious medal contenders. Consider, for example, the arguments made by some Washington lobby groups to deny faith-based organizations the right to provide social services as part of publicly funded welfare programs.

BRONZE MEDAL—ACLU: "Government cannot fund the work of faith-based organizations because, under the Constitution, it can't fund religion." Nice try, but when government buys job training or transportation services from religious organizations, it is not buying "religion." It is buying a specific public service, just as it does from "secular" groups. In fact, Charitable Choice guidelines explicitly state that no public funds can be used for activities such as worship services, Bible studies, or discipleship classes. Of course, faith-based groups can offer these types of activities as voluntary, extra-curricular opportunities, but that is not what government is funding when it partners with non-profits.

Contrary to the ACLU's opinion, government can hardly be accused of "establishing religion" when it permits faith-based groups to compete for funding on a level playing field along with all other groups. In fact, to exclude them by favoring only secular groups does serious injury to the religious liberty of those who choose to serve the poor this way, and to the poor who welcome their services.

SILVER MEDAL—People for the American Way: "Government cannot fund the work of faith-based organizations because they might use religion in hiring staff." This is yet another false start. It is essential to both the integrity and effectiveness of religious organizations that they hire staff members who are committed to the basis of their programs. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees this right to faith-based groups. Charitable Choice says they do not have to give it up when they use public funds.

GOLD MEDAL—Baptist Joint Committee: "Government shouldn't fund the work of faith-based organizations, because whatever government funds, it controls." Or, if government rules have been overly restrictive in the past, why permit religious groups to subject themselves to government hassle? After all, they can just use their own private funds and leave the public funds with all the strings for others?

Foul play. This argument tries to promote religious liberty by denying it. To keep faith-based groups "free" from government, it denies the right of faith communities to work with government, even if their faith leads them to do so. This is like the overprotective parent who forbids a child from ever going out to play on the playground because their child might meet the school bully—except that under this scenario, the playground is off limits for all children.

The argument also misses the mark because Charitable Choice rules now keep government on a pretty tight leash so it won't overstep its bounds when it works with faith-based organizations. These new guidelines require government to respect the rights of faith-based organizations to maintain their religious character. The law explicitly states that they retain their independence from government. They no longer have to turn their programs into "religion-free zones" as a condition of receiving public funds. No overprotective parents are needed if playgrounds are safe and the rules are being enforced.

Instead of giving their blessing to unfair treatment of religious organizations in the public square, these medal winners should adopt a new game plan: Let government welcome all groups as potential teammates in serving the poor, regardless of their religious commitments, and let each group choose for itself whether or not it wants to participate.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Research Associate
   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.”