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

Goring the Separationists

Keith Pavlischek


June 7, 1999

"Government does not have a monopoly on compassion. Who better to help those who need help than people of faith who are following a religious imperative to love their neighbors, feed the poor, and help the needy? Government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions. Church and state should work together for our shared goals."—Gov. George W. Bush

"As long as there is always a secular alternative and as long as no one is required to participate in religious observances, faith-based organizations can provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care. They can do so with public funds and without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness. I believe that we should extend this carefully tailored approach to other vital services where faith-based organizations can play a role, such as drug treatment, homelessness, and youth violence prevention."—Vice President Al Gore

Its no secret that Gov. Bush has long been a strong political supporter of "Charitable Choice,"which opens the doors for faith-based organizations to compete for public funding on an equal basis with secular organizations. But Gore's statement was a surprise. While President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, of which the Charitable Choice provision was a small part, the administration's support has been tepid at best. Hence, Gore's statement got considerable press coverage.

No wonder strict separationist organizations, traditional and not insignificant segments of Gore's political base, have gone apoplectic. The ubiquitous Barry Lynn, formerly of the ACLU and now head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, threatened (surprise!) a lawsuit if Charitable Choice expands. People for the American Way (PFAW) also condemned the proposal. Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) stated that "A war on poverty doesn't have to include a war on religious liberty," implying, of course, that Gore is now joining Bush and other members of the vast right wing you-know-what in the war against religious liberty. Evidently, extremism in defense of separationism is no vice. Conversely, Gore's moderation in the pursuit of public justice is no virtue.

Cynics might wonder whether Gore's recent conversion to Charitable Choice is merely a ploy designed to steal political thunder from Bush's presidential campaign. "Going soft" on "separation of church and state" is not nearly as politically risky as going soft on, say, school choice or the abortion license. Betraying interest groups like Americans United, PAW and the BJC is one thing. Betraying the National Organization for Women or the NEA is another. The difference: money and political clout.

The less cynical will be inclined to see a genuine about-face on the issue. As Joe Loconte of the conservative Heritage Foundation says, Gore's stance "marks a repudiation of the anti-religious bigotry that has dominated liberal forces for at least a generation. This hollow secularism of liberal government has run its course. That is a watershed."

Let's hope Loconte's right. In the meantime, Gore could "walk the talk" (1) by publicly supporting the expanded Charitable Choice legislation currently in Congress and (2) by insisting that faith-based organizations have the right to hire employees on the basis of their commitment to the religious mission of the organizations. Then he could explain exactly why the Americans United, ACLU, and PFAW are wrong on these issues.

Advocates for public justice and genuine societal pluralism should be innocent as doves and say "Welcome aboard, Mr. Vice President. Better late than never." But they should be wise as serpents and say, "Show me the money and the legal protections to safeguard the religious character of faith-based organizations."

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
   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.”