President George W. Bush’s proposal to fund religious groups to provide charity has not met with the holiest of reactions.
Many fear such a move would be a violation of the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. Religious leaders are concerned accepting government money would require government regulations which conflict with their religious beliefs.
Conversely, secular opponents are worried taxpayer dollars will be allocated to charities that practice discriminatory hiring policies. Many are unclear who is going to be eligible to receive funding and how they are going to be able to use it.
Religious charities have received government funding for decades, providing a service without preaching a faith.
“I am confused by what is actually being proposed,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities in Sacramento. “We receive public money. The majority of religious charities do. This isn’t a new idea.”
The difference with the Bush plan is that it aims to give funds directly to the religious organizations. Monies donated under the plan could only be used to fund charitable works. However, the implications of such a move are unclear.
“When government funds are used to support charities run by programs pervasive to religion, then that would compromise the separation of church and state, even if there is a provision the money cannot be used for proselytizing,” said Florence Kimball of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “When you give money for one thing in a national organization, it frees up money for proselytizing.”
Giving taxpayer money to religious groups will come with certain requirements on how it can be spent. Religious organizations would not be allowed to spend taxpayer money on promoting or preaching their faith. Religiously affiliated charities that have already received money have been subject to such requirements, but many fear that the special status actual religious groups enjoy in the United States may allow them to avoid full compliance.
“There have been government-supported organizations such as Catholic Charities and there has not been the slightest problem,” said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of Peoples of the American Way. “They follow the rules and we don’t have a problem. The problem we have with the Bush plan is that it is providing direct grants to religion.”
Not only is there the potential for taxpayer money to be used to support certain religions, but there is also the possibility it may lead to government-supported discriminatory hiring practices.
“I think the wording (of the proposal) does leave open the possibility for discrimination,” Kimball said. “If we have funding for organizations that are exempt from the laws, then we have federal funding for discriminatory hiring.”
Many in the Tahoe religious community feel the funds would be used properly, but all agree there is the potential for gross manipulation of the plan.
“With any sort of nonprofit organization we don’t know where the money is going,” said pastor John Peterson of the South Shore Christian Assembly. “I can see the danger without some sort of standard.”
“What I see in the churches is that when they offer something of a charitable nature, there is no proselytizing,” said the Rev. Chuck Kelly of St. Theresa Catholic Church. “I would say that the No. 1 goal is to feed the poor. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. If they could address those issues I think it would be a good idea.”
Tahoe religious leaders see advantages from government funding of religious groups which would benefit the community as a whole.
“I believe in separation of church and state,” said David Cahoon of the Lake Tahoe Unitarian Universalists. “Nevertheless, I think that some government funds can be used for religious awareness. We are not a culture that is very well-informed about our religious background.”
There is also strong speculation that religious organizations could make better use of taxpayer money than the government in providing charitable services.
“I don’t think any city or government officials would want to open a 200 bed housing and food program,” Johnson said. “Maybe with some help (religious organizations) can increase the numbers they are able to minister to.”
Still, opponents fear that even if religious organizations comply with regulations barring them from using funds to preach their religions, the very act of providing charity could constitute promulgating their faith.
“The devil is in the details,” Mincberg said. “It is possible to run a soup kitchen without proselytizing, but with faith-based drug rehabilitation, the whole idea is to find Jesus or Allah and get off drugs.”
Regardless of the implications of Bush’s faith-based initiatives, the religious community appears more concerned with the integrity of their institutions than the opportunity to receive more funding.
“Probably it is more trouble than it is worth,” Johnson said. “We are getting along and we get no government donations. Could we do more? Absolutely, but if it meant we have to give up the right to hire who we want and do all kinds of paperwork, maybe we are better off without it.”
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