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

Against the Decline

James Skillen


October 26, 1998

American national politics gives much cause for disgust these days. The electoral battles rising to a climax are full of fury but won't yield much direction for the future. The session of Congress dwindling to an end couldn't mobilize even to stop partial-birth abortions and ditched its high-sounding principles in the budget process. Our president is sullied by admitted lies and misdeeds, while Congress consults polls rather than conscience and Constitution as it dithers toward judgment.

Yet there is also progress. Whatever the other preoccupations of politicians, the call to pursue justice is constant and the task of government is ongoing. Sitting on the President's desk is a bill initiated by Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) that extends to the Community Services Block Grant program the Charitable Choice principles that give faith-based groups an equal chance to participate with other community organizations. Other initiatives to end the federal government's frosty treatment of religious organizations are also in the works. A historic change in church-state relations is underway.

Charitable Choice was first adopted as part of the 1996 federal welfare law, on the initiative of Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO). It requires states buying welfare services not to discriminate against faith-based providers. It protects both the religious character of providers and the religious liberty of clients. The goal is to expand cooperation between the public anti-poverty effort and the community-service programs of the faith communities by ensuring that religious groups do not have to stifle their identity when accepting government funds.

Similar rules already govern federal child-care vouchers and the Refugee Resettlement program. The 1996 law applied these rules to federal welfare block grants. And the bill before the President extends the idea even further, to the more than 500 million federal dollars that are directed to community-based agencies that serve impoverished neighborhoods. Faith-based groups would no longer be turned away because of their faith, nor required to shed their religious principles and practices. Put these changes together and a large part of federal spending for services for the neediest are subject to faith-friendly rules.

The idea is being promoted in other ways, too. Bills have been floated to apply the rules to drug-treatment programs and to federal grants to states to strengthen fatherhood. Sen. Ashcroft has proposed applying Charitable Choice to all federal, state, and local programs that use federal funds to buy services from nongovernmental sources. The president has advocated including churches in the fight against juvenile crime. A new Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships in the Department of Housing and Urban Development encourages better interaction between the feds and faith groups.

It remains to be seen how much fruit these initiatives will bear. Changing the operating practices of government bureaucracies is much harder than changing laws. And changes on the government side won't make any difference if faith-based organizations refuse to engage with government because they remember past problems but disregard positive trends in laws and Supreme Court rulings.

So it is too soon to throw a party to celebrate a new era of genuine partnership in service of the needy. But it is not too soon to say we are witnessing a key change of orientation in American public life. The wall of separation metaphor is being eclipsed by a new requirement that government be evenhanded in its relations with faith-based and secular nongovernmental organizations. This is the start of a dramatic and positive realignment of government and the religious social sector. As we bemoan the sterility of election campaigns, the ineffectiveness of Congress, and the sins of the President, let's not miss this important positive trend.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Puiblic 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.”