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

An Attack on Faith-Based Service Providers

Michael J. Gerson


November 17, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

There is a growing controversy in Washington about the Obama administration’s treatment of faith-based, anti-poverty groups.  The debate has swirled around Catholic organizations in particular, since they do not make referrals for abortion or contraceptive services. 

In October, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) discontinued a contract with a program run by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops which has been helping the victims of human trafficking for several years—providing medical screening, employment counseling, childcare and legal services.

No one argues this effort is ineffective.  In fact, an independent review panel at HHS found it to be more effective than its secular counterparts.  But, under legal pressure from the ACLU, the political leadership of HHS ended the grant because case workers supported by the bishops would not refer for abortion and contraception.  A number of career HHS employees objected to the decision.  And members of congress have expressed an interest in investigating the matter. 

The argument of the Administration is clear: It is impossible, in its view, for pro-life organizations to provide the victims of human trafficking with a full range of social services, so Catholic groups need not apply.  The bishops respond that encouraging abortion is not just another service—it is a violation of their religious conscience.  They add that a majority of the trafficking victims they help are actually men, forced into economic slavery.  And since the bishops are not running residential programs, women helped with childcare or legal services can go elsewhere for contraception.         

The details of this case are important.  The Administration’s bias against Catholic groups is hurting people in serious need.  But this controversy raises a larger question:  Should public funds ever go to faith-based social service providers, which often have different moral views and practices than public welfare bureaucracies?  Should the receipt of public resources require the Conference of Catholic Bishops, or Catholic Charities, or the Salvation Army to forfeit their religious liberty?  

There are several problems with this aggressive form of secularism.  First, the public funding of faith-based social service is common—from AIDS and hunger programs in Africa, to addiction and homelessness programs in American communities.  Particularly in the inner-city, the African-American church is one of the main social service providers.  A broad attack on religious liberty would also be a broad attack on the poor and helpless.

Second, existing law is clear on this matter. Faith-based charities can’t use public funds for the promotion of religion—only for the provision of services to the public.  But these institutions are not required to change their religious mission or identity in order to receive public resources.  And the Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment passed in 2004 specifically forbids discrimination against HHS-funded organizations that don’t refer for abortions.  

Finally, the secularization of social services is an attack on genuine pluralism. On human trafficking, HHS is attempting to impose its pro-choice political views on others.  Those who refuse to surrender their beliefs are cut off.  But religious groups, including the Catholic bishops, have a distinguished record of effective compassion.  Those in need would be better off if HHS showed less arrogance and more respect for diversity and religious liberty. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  




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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.”