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

Losing by Default

James Skillen


October 14, 1996

Who would have predicted it? The federal welfare overhaul adopted this summer actually forbids state discrimination against faith-based agencies and requires the states to protect agencies' religious character and mission. States like Michigan, Virginia, and Mississippi have started building partnerships with religious groups. One midwestern juvenile court judge wants to contract only with overtly religious agencies for counseling troubled teens and their families.

Many self-styled defenders of religious liberty are horrified, of course. How dare government expose needy people to religious influences and let public funds end up in faith-based institutions? A "Working Group for Religious Freedom in Social Services," headed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is fulminating about the outrageousness of letting religion taint the public's business.

Evangelicals have condemned materialistic government welfare programs and the cultural elites' insistence on keeping religion marginalized—on preserving what Richard John Neuhaus termed "the naked public square." So how are we responding to government's search for alternatives to secular programs that ignore moral and spiritual needs? A cold shoulder has been the main reaction. We won't let our ministries get close to government because we are sure that government will crush their spiritual mission.

The reaction is understandable. Some Christian social ministries that have teamed up with public programs have been told they no longer have the right to hire only people committed to their religious mission. Some agencies have had to strip religious symbols from their walls. Others have been pressured to diversify their governing boards in violation of their own standards. All too often "God talk" has been censored when government money is involved.

The skeptics are right: it's no partnership if the price is losing your mission. But that is exactly why the new federal welfare law is so important. Its "charitable choice" rules specifically forbid each one of these violations of religious integrity. And some state officials are seeing that if they trample a group's religious mission they'll lose just what they hope to gain.

In fact, the federal law isn't as clear as it should be and even well-intentioned state officials don't always know how to protect the religious rights of ministries as well as welfare beneficiaries. It will take more than new laws and regulations to change destructive assumptions and practices that have taken years to become deeply rooted. Besides, there is the big question of how much of welfare should be done just by the churches and not by government at all.

Christian ministries should approach the invitation to cooperate with public welfare pro-grams with prayer, caution, and deliberation. Pious wishes and pure intentions aren't enough. Good analysis, concerted pressure, and smart lawyering are all going to be needed, too.

But one thing should be clear. We dare not allow by default what many opponents are fighting for by design: the perpetuation of the naked public square and of public assistance that tends only to the body and not to the soul.

Public officials are saying they are ready for a drastic change in public welfare and in government's relations with faith-based agencies. This is no time merely to react to the outrages of the past. Government is intended for good, not for evil. Let's hold officials up to the high standards of public justice and not allow them to perpetuate bad policies. Let's not quit the field of battle when the great fight for a new direction in social policy has hardly begun.

—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.”