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

Don't Unite with Americans United

James Skillen


February 16, 1998

Time and again, when the press covers questions of religious freedom and government "entanglement," reporters turn to Barry Lynn for comment. Lynn directs Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Lynn's arguments are old and fast becoming obsolete. Yet we cannot ignore the long tradition he represents. From his point of view, when government directs public funds to education or welfare services provided by religious organizations, it means that "churches are making deals with the devil" (The Charleston Gazette, 1/31/98).

What lies behind Lynn's charge?

Religion, according to Americans United, is a narrow thing, identified with worship and evangelization. It belongs in private. It has nothing to do with government. On the other hand, activities such as education, helping the poor, and caring for prisoners are secular matters when government deals with them. And government's involvement means that force is present. That can't be good for voluntary, private religion.

The Charitable Choice provision included in the latest welfare-reform law draws Lynn's ire. For government to provide social services through contracts with churches and self-professed religious groups is, by his definition, unconstitutional. Those eligible for welfare benefits will be forced "to be good or religious." They will be "forced, literally and figuratively, to pray or listen to some religious teachings."

Lynn's fears are so strong that he can't even read the law correctly. The Charitable Choice provision specifically stipulates that eligible recipients do not have to go to a religious provider for services. And if they do go and find that they don't like what they hear, they are free to go elsewhere or to stay and refrain from participating in the full program of the agency. No one is forced to do anything.

The truth is that it's the old and dying system, defended by Lynn, that exerts illegitimate force on people. Think of it this way. What about all those citizens for whom faith is a full-life matter? When they are eligible for welfare services, the only option Lynn thinks they should have is one separated from their religious faith. In the name of equal treatment and religious freedom, Lynn would exclude many citizens and service organizations from full participation in public life.

The Charitable Choice provision does just the opposite of forcing people to become religious. It opens real choice to all Americans by stopping the discrimination against religious groups. If government allows a full diversity of groups to participate in providing services, and if it makes sure people are free to choose their service provider, then no one is forced to be religious. Government simply complies with the Constitution's true demands, which are to protect religious freedom and to refrain from establishing any religion.

When Lynn warns that "there will be battles between Baptists, Methodists, Scientologists, Muslims and others over who gets the most money," he tries to startle us with the prospect of religious wars. But the only way a group can get funds under Charitable Choice is by providing good service to those who want it. What could be better for America than to have groups competing to become better servants of those in need?

The time has come for Barry Lynn to put the 16th and 17th centuries behind him and to become a genuine, 20th-century public pluralist—someone ready to advocate real religious freedom for all Americans under a government that does not discriminate against either believers or non believers. It is time for Americans United to join the fight for justice.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   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.”