Bush's faith-based assistance proposal is filled with numerous pitfalls

My turn

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2001

Twelve years ago, the senior President George Bush envisioned "a thousand points of light" and challenged Americans to get involved in their communities, give to charities, and work together at the local level to solve local problems. This was a noble idea, although not a novel one.

After all, President Kennedy's inspirational challenge to Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" became the inaugural speech against which all others have been measured.

What the junior President Bush is now proposing is quite different from these prior appeals to the American spirit of ingenuity and compassion. Ironically, the current initiative actually expands government into the one realm not previously subjected to its reach: religion. The Bush initiative converts religious organizations into government subcontractors - subject to government regulation - and places over 2,000 religious denominations in competition for any taxpayer-funded public health or social service contract.

Moreover, the Bush initiative contains no restrictions to prevent taxpayer-funded discrimination in employment and the provision of services. For example, a church might insist that only people of its own faith could be employed in a publicly funded, church-run soup kitchen. America's poor and hungry could be forced to listen to a sermon that may conflict with their personal religious beliefs in order to receive food from that soup kitchen. Alternatively, that soup kitchen might give preferences in its services to people based not on need but on race or religion, leading to discrimination against those who need these services the most.

Finally, the Bush initiative would not require religious organizations to hire trained and licensed counselors and therapists to deliver social services. In Texas, where then-Gov. Bush implemented many elements of his new federal program, a church-based drug rehabilitation program argued that drug addiction was a sin, not a disease, and offered prayer and Bible reading as "treatment." Many individuals facing drug addiction, mental illness and other problems need more than spiritual advice.

Bush's new initiative to funnel government money into religion-based social programs pits the fundamental rights of people of faith to practice their religion freely against the equally fundamental rights of all Americans to receive taxpayer-funded government services free from discrimination. By placing these two core American values in diametric opposition to one another, the president's initiative endangers protections for both religious freedom and equal rights to the detriment of all Americans.

Jennifer Rudinger is the executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving the guarantees of individual liberty found in the Bill of Rights and the Alaska Constitution.

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