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

Fake Wall, Real Moat

James Skillen


December 8, 1997

Critics who insist that the Constitution forbids government support of faith-based charities are simply wrong. The "wall of separation" metaphor isn't even in the Constitution; the actual requirement in matters of faith is government neutrality, not secularism. But the misleading metaphor has resulted in a real-life moat between government and religious organizations.

Of course, church and state must remain separate. Government may not establish religion. But neither may it ignore or be hostile to faith. Citizens profess diverse beliefs, and social institutions embody varying convictions. To do justice, government must accommodate these faiths and be even-handed in dealing with them.

So when it comes to serving the poor, government should uphold the work of faith-based and other private organizations that are closely involved with needy families and neighborhoods. Cooperation, not separation, is the right metaphor. Where a ministry's program overlaps with government's welfare goals, the ministry should be able to seek government's financial support.

That's the idea of the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law. When states spend their federal welfare block grants, they may not exclude faith-based organizations from competing for contracts or vouchers to provide welfare services. And states must protect the religious character of participating ministries, while also ensuring that poor families aren't compelled to use a religious provider.

But it's a long way from changing federal law to transforming actual practice. For one thing, it hasn't even dawned yet on many officials that Charitable Choice is the law of the land. Beyond that is a tougher problem: many of us—citizens and officials alike—have engraved in our minds that mistaken metaphor of a wall of separation.

When a Maryland county recently organized a conference to bring together welfare staff, faith communities, and business leaders, there was one major problem: some key churches, active in community service, weren't even invited. In western Michigan, church-state cooperation is helping move many able-bodied adults from welfare to work, yet at the other end of the state some officials still insist that voluntary prayer and Bible reading can't be tolerated in government-funded job-preparation programs. Texas is committed to Charitable Choice, so its top welfare agency insisted on an inclusive list of potential providers. But by deciding to focus on interfaith networks, it inadvertently excluded many independent, conservative, charismatic, evangelical, and fundamentalist religious groups.

Similar problems hamper the faith communities. Some church leaders are so used to telling government what to do with the poor that they can't imagine how church and state might cooperate in service programs. Others are so full of stories about anti-religious government action that they can't believe Charitable Choice is the new rule. Many ministry leaders, having gone their own way for so long, don't even know whom to call about local welfare changes and contracting opportunities.

Both sides need to build bridges across the moat. Some public officials must learn that faith isn't an irrelevant factor in assistance and that religious organizations are much more active in community service than they imagine. Programs need to be redesigned to enable a larger range of organizations to cooperate with public welfare. An active reach across the gap is essential.

Christian ministries and other religious organizations dare not stand by, merely hoping for positive change. Now is the time to jump into the fray with questions, suggestions, demands, and proposals. Without deliberate action, the reality will continue to be shaped by the separationist myth instead of the cooperation imperative.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior 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.”