By providing federal funds to religious groups performing social services, President George W. Bush is trampling the American principle of religious freedom. He either does not understand the principle or has little respect for it.

Democracy and separation of powers have also taken hits from Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Congress declined to enact his proposal for nearly two years, mainly because federal dollars would be going to groups practicing religious discrimination in hiring.

While the people’s representatives debated, Bush grew tired of waiting and decided in December 2002 to act alone. He began issuing executive orders making pervasively religious groups eligible to receive billions of dollars from the federal government in exchange for providing public services.

Bush similarly disregarded numerous judicial decisions indicating that church-state separation is violated by his scheme to fund religious organizations. He arrogantly and recklessly plowed ahead by usurping the functions of both Congress and the courts.

If it ain’t broke . . .

For many years, groups affiliated with religion have received government funds to perform social services. But they were required to keep the services separate from religious activities.

The separation was usually done by setting up a nonprofit corporation to provide the government-funded services. The nonprofit entity was distinct from the religious organization, had an independent board, and did not engage in religious discrimination in hiring employees or providing services.

Additionally, the services were delivered in accordance with widely accepted professional standards and free from religious proselytizing. Because the organization operated in a nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory manner – neither promoting nor opposing religion – government funding and regulation of its operations did not violate church-state separation.

Although this system worked well for many years and provided substantial funding to religiously affiliated groups, it was not good enough for Bush. He viewed the refusal to fund pervasively religious organizations not as respect for church-state separation but as discrimination against religion.

Bush’s bosh

Bush therefore declared an end to “the days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious.” He argued that “governments can and should support effective social services provided by religious people, so long as they work and as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith.”

Bush sees no problem with government-funded social services being delivered in religious settings. He asserts that “when government gives that support, it is equally important that faith-based institutions should not be forced to change [their] character or compromise their prophetic role. . . . It should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross on the wall, or crescent on the wall, or religious commitment in the charter.”

In fact, Bush believes that social programs are more effective when religion is added. He touts his proposal by saying: “No government policy can put hope in people’s hearts or a sense of purpose in people’s lives. That is done when someone, some good soul, puts an arm around a neighbor and says, ‘God loves you, and I love you, and you can count on us both.'”  He also argues: “Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith.”

Proclaiming that “faith-based charities work daily miracles,” Bush apparently thinks religious conversion is the answer to crime, drug addiction, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and other social problems – as long as religious groups are given enough federal dollars.

Thus, Bush’s faith-based initiatives allow pervasively religious groups to receive grants from the federal government to perform public services. The services can be performed in churches and similar places where scriptures, icons, and other religious symbols and messages permeate the environment. And the groups can practice religious discrimination in hiring employees to provide the services.

Bush has even proposed using federal dollars to build and renovate churches and other religious structures – if part of the building is used for social services. Supposedly, the funding could not exceed the cost of that part and could not finance the principal room used for prayer.

Federal guidelines issued for the faith-based initiatives do prohibit public funds from supporting inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization. But few expect the prohibitions to be enforced, particularly in light of Bush’s incessant claims about the power of faith to change lives.

Moreover, attempting to distinguish between religious and nonreligious activities is virtually meaningless in regard to operations of pervasively religious organizations. Credibility is strained to the breaking point by calling any activity nonreligious when performed by a religious organization, in a pervasively religious environment, and by persons who had to meet a religious test before being hired.

And the fact is that if government finances any portion of a religious group’s operations, it leaves that much other revenue available for the group to use in directly promoting religion. For instance, providing funds to help build a temple frees up money for the church to use in religious advertising and evangelizing. Any public funding of religious organizations is, therefore, government support of religion.

A smaller part of Bush’s proposal involves the use of vouchers in an attempt to avoid the prohibitions on funding inherently religious activities. His administration believes that if government gives people vouchers that they can redeem at a faith-based organization of their choice, the organization is free to include as much religion as it wants in providing public services.

Bush clearly appears more interested in the religious aspects of social service programs than in whether the counselors are licensed and the procedures have a proven record of effectiveness.

He extols programs that make religious conversion the primary goal, and points to the drug treatment program at the Healing Place Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as an example of what he wants to support. According to the church’s website, the program relies “solely on . . . the Word of God to break the bands of addiction” and believes “that recovery begins at the Cross.”

After hearing Bush crow about the life-changing powers of faith, and seeing his proposals to fund religious groups, columnist Robyn Blumner warned: “Make no mistake, Bush’s plan is to have taxpayers underwrite conversion.”

Religious freedom dissed

Bush’s faith-based initiatives contravene religious liberty in several ways. Any one of them should be sufficient to sink the policy as a violation of church-state separation.

Forcing people to support religion is incompatible with religious liberty

Bush has promoted his proposal by saying “we must not worry about people of faith receiving taxpayers’ money.” And he declares: “We want to fund programs that save Americans, one soul at a time.”

But requiring citizens to fund religion is one of the most blatant and offensive violations of religious freedom. Integral to religious liberty is the right to choose whether to support religion and which one to support.

It should be too obvious to state that people lack religious liberty when the government takes their money and gives it to religions they have not freely chosen to assist. Bush, however, is denying Americans the right to choose and sending their tax dollars to religions picked by the government – no matter how strongly some taxpayers may oppose those religions.

The Founders of the U.S. believed that tax support of religion is an egregious violation of religious liberty. In the Virginia Assembly in 1779, Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill opposing a proposal to provide tax revenue for Christian education. His “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” said it is “sinful and tyrannical to compel a man to furnish contributions for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors.”

James Madison was equally vehement in denouncing government aid to religion. Joining Jefferson’s fight against tax funding of religion, he wrote and distributed his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.”

The Remonstrance contains numerous arguments for religious liberty and church-state separation. On the right of the individual to choose whether to support religion, Madison wrote: “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. . . . It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.”

Madison’s Remonstrance was instrumental not only in defeating the proposed tax support of religion in Virginia, but in securing passage of Jefferson’s bill in 1785. A few years later, Jefferson’s bill was the prototype for the guarantees of religious freedom placed in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which was authored primarily by Madison.

Essential to the Founders’ concept of religious liberty, then, was that there would be no public funding of religion. The same view was implemented at the state level.

Among the original 13 states, the ones that allowed tax support of religion eventually followed the lead of Virginia and the national government by eliminating it. And virtually all the states that joined the Union in the nineteenth century adopted the principle that public funds would not be used for religion.

It is deeply troubling that although the Founders were extremely concerned about the freedom to choose whether to support religion, Bush doesn’t seem concerned about this right at all.

Religious freedom prohibits government from promoting religious conversion

Another way Bush’s faith-based initiatives violate religious freedom is by pressuring people to attend religious environments to obtain government benefits. Making matters worse, a reason the government leads them there is to promote religious conversion.

Although federal guidelines prohibit direct proselytizing of recipients while the social services are being rendered, Bush has made clear that the services can be delivered in settings where religious scriptures, icons, and art pervade the environment. The locations can include churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places used primarily for religious worship.

The guidelines also permit religious groups to “invite participants to join in your organization’s religious services or events.” But the groups cannot require participation in religious activities or condition the receipt of government-funded assistance upon it.

Undoubtedly, Bush hopes the recipients will accept the invitations or otherwise express interest in the religious messages surrounding them while receiving public services. They can then be referred for religious counseling in a separate room used for that purpose, or in the same room but at a time when government services are not being provided. There, someone can put an arm around them and say, “God loves you, and I love you, and you can count on us both.”

In effect, these government-funded social programs function as bait to lure recipients into religious environments. Once there, they are induced to attend religious functions or to inquire about religion so that attempts can be made to convert them. And with Bush as president, it’s unlikely federal agents will be monitoring the situations to ensure that no overt attempts at conversion are made while public services are being delivered.

Adding to the problem is that recipients of government aid are often in positions of need and dependency, making them more susceptible to religious influences while receiving assistance. They are under pressure to conform in order to quell any fears they may have of jeopardizing their lifelines to aid, even if conformity means violating their own religious principles.

Their predicament illustrates that whenever government promotes religion, citizens feel coerced to submit to the government’s theology instead of following their own beliefs. The pressure is strong and inescapable because of the enormous power government wields over people’s lives.

Whether the proselytizing is subtle or blatant, Jefferson and Madison would have objected to this arrangement. Jefferson stated in his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” that no one should “be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” He and the other Founders saw religious freedom as encompassing the right not to attend religious places.

Madison added that using “religion as an engine of civil policy” constitutes “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” The Founders viewed such acts as harmful to both religion and government.

Religious discrimination in employment is outrageous and harmful

By providing tax funds enabling religious groups to hire based on religious criteria, Bush’s faith-based initiatives are responsible for the resulting discrimination.

Religious discrimination could not be more inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits government from interfering with religious freedom. But this is exactly what government does by putting people in a position of having to choose between their religious beliefs and getting a job.

The Framers of the Constitution also specified in Article VI, Clause 3 that there shall be no religious test for any public office. They viewed religious beliefs as irrelevant to whether a person is qualified to perform governmental functions. They knew that exemplary public servants could come from all religions and also from the nonreligious.

For example, George Washington said the U.S. government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. . . .” In hiring workers for his own estate, he explained, “If they be good workmen, they may be . . . Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.”

George Bush is no George Washington. Without a twinge of conscience, Bush sanctions bigotry by funding public services performed by workers who have to meet religious tests before being hired.

In addition to disqualifying many applicants for job openings, this discrimination reduces the efficacy of the public services. Faith-based groups reject highly qualified candidates having the wrong religion and hire less-qualified personnel who meet religious standards.

But if the services funded by government are not religious in nature, as Bush claims, there’s no justification for using religion as a criterion in hiring. U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) objected to the religious tests by saying, “Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs.”

Only if the employees are to perform religious functions would there be a reason for allowing religious discrimination in hiring. This fact belies Bush’s claim that religion won’t be funded.

The discrimination also exposes as untruthful Bush’s contention that he is only seeking equal treatment for faith-based organizations. Other social service providers receiving federal funds are not permitted to practice religious discrimination in hiring. Allowing faith-based groups to do so is not equal treatment but favoritism for religion.

Additional problems with the proposal

A number of other problems make faith-based initiatives a bad bargain for both the religious and nonreligious.

In the first place, members donate less to religion when their tax dollars are already going there. Some conclude that because they have given through taxes, they need not contribute as much voluntarily. The influx of government funding thus means decreased support from members and more reliance on government

As the groups become increasingly dependent on public funding, they are vulnerable to losing control of their operations to the government. History teaches that government controls what it funds. For instance, government assistance to religious colleges caused a secularization of many of them and a watering down of their religious message – in some cases virtually to the vanishing point.

Religious colleges found that government attaches strings to funding in order to further its purposes, which are not necessarily consistent with religious purposes. Recipients also must agree to government mandates, oversight, and audits so that public dollars are not misappropriated or used for providing substandard services.

The problem is that when government waves substantial amounts of money in front of religious groups, they often find the temptation irresistible and cave to whatever the government wants, regardless of the impact on their religion. In effect, they betray their principles in exchange for the government’s 30 pieces of silver, allowing government to crucify their religious mission.

Accepting public funds also makes religious groups reluctant to criticize government, because they want to avoid biting the hand that feeds them. But by turning a blind eye to government’s wrongdoing, the moral integrity of religious organizations is damaged and society loses what can be an important critic of government. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

And when religious groups start ignoring violations of the public trust, it’s just a short step from there to actively participating in, covering up, or making excuses for the malfeasance of public officials. These actions are easy to rationalize when millions of dollars and the survival of a group’s programs are at stake.

In fact, according to New York Observer columnist Joe Conason, Bush’s faith-based initiatives have already “been transformed into a patronage operation” to further the political designs of government officials. In essence, the officials dole out public funds to religious groups in exchange for political support.

In his book Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, Conason relates: “During the 2002 midterm election campaign, administration officials suddenly showed up at inner-city churches, seeking to entice African-American ministers politically with federal funding.”

Church & State magazine reports that Republican leaders used a similar tactic in trying to stem African-American protests of the racially inflammatory comments made by U.S. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott in December 2002.

The pattern continued in 2004 when Bush was seeking reelection. Rev. Barry Lynn says in his book Piety and Politics that administration officials promoted the availability of funds for faith-based programs in swing states and in districts having close political races that year.

These uses of the faith-based initiatives are inconsistent with Bush’s claim that their purpose is to help the poor and suffering. The funds are being used to reward religious leaders who support Bush’s policies, to bribe others into doing the same, and to silence critics and potential critics.

Even if religion does not actively assist government’s wrongdoing, a close relation between the two causes religion to be tainted by public corruption. Thomas Paine described government as a necessary evil. By partnering with a government that sometimes is evil, religion receives from the public the same criticisms and antipathy as are directed at government.

Relying on government support also makes religious organizations lazy and ineffective. Instead of concentrating on developing and marketing an attractive message, the focus shifts to lobbying for government aid. When those efforts prove successful, riding the government’s gravy train renders the groups even less inclined to do the hard work of motivating people to become involved and donate voluntarily.

Moreover, when government picks and chooses between religious groups seeking support, an ugly and acrimonious competition between religions ensues. The Religious Right has emphasized that certain “undesirable” religions should be excluded from Bush’s program. In this atmosphere, claims of favoritism arise and ecumenical relationships are difficult to attain. Religious groups losing out in the quest for public funding develop resentment toward the winners and against the government that slighted them.

And as Susan Jacoby notes in her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism: “On what basis do we decide which religions – and which factions within religions – are ‘moderate’ enough to be eligible for tax money? That is precisely the question that the framers of the Constitution never wanted to fall within the authority of any government agency or official.”

Further, many people lose respect for religions that need government support. An inherent contradiction exists in claiming to have an omnipotent God on one’s side while simultaneously alleging a need for government assistance. Government should aid the sick and the needy, and provide other essential public services, rather than waste resources in an illogical attempt to strengthen the Almighty.

Finally, contrary to what Bush and other supporters of faith-based initiatives suggest, there’s no proof that religious groups provide social services better than secular organizations. Stephen Goldsmith, a Bush administration official hired to oversee part of the initiatives, admitted on National Public Radio on January 29, 2001 that he lacks “hard proof” of their superiority.

A 2002 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society likewise failed to find empirical evidence supporting the alleged superiority. That study was a meta-analysis of 25 previous studies of faith-based social services.

Bush nevertheless wants to cut funds from secular programs having strong records of effectiveness, when those programs already possess insufficient resources. He would redirect the funds to religious groups using unproven, unaccredited, and unregulated methods.


Bush’s faith-based initiatives make substantial and perilous assaults on the principle of religious freedom.

He would force taxpayers to support religious doctrines they disagree with, pressure recipients of government aid to enter religious environments, subject them to religious proselytizing while there, and promote religious discrimination in employment.

The Framers vigorously condemned all those acts when they spoke of religious liberty and the rights of conscience. They separated church and state to prevent government from ever implementing such offensive, intolerant, and divisive policies.

Additionally, government’s purported helping-hands will, after getting a firm grip on religious groups, put them in a chokehold that will enable public officials to control their operations and manipulate them for political purposes.

As U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in opposing Bush’s proposal: “The day will come when, having permitted excessive entanglement between religious institutions and the government, there will be no protection for religion when government flexes its muscles.”

The Framers foresaw those results, too, when they separated church and state. They knew that separation helps both religion and government.

Many supporters of faith-based initiatives have good intentions. But by displaying a cavalier or oblivious attitude toward violations of religious liberty, they are pursuing an extremely dangerous course.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s warning is relevant: “Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Federal and state judges are likely to have more appreciation for church-state separation than Bush is displaying. If they do, the courts will declare his entire program to be a patent violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.