TOPICS > Nation

Faith-Based Charities

March 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: We pick up the debate over an expanded government role in faith-based charity with Mayor John Street of Philadelphia, and Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a pro-family think tank. They support expanding Charitable Choice; also, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Marvin Olasky, a former Bush adviser and senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. They have raised questions about the White House proposal. We did ask White House officials to appear on tonight’s program, but they declined our invitation. Mayor Street, is this initiative, as you see it, which you support, is it in trouble?

MAYOR JOHN STREET: Well, I don’t think so. I really look forward to the president pushing on with his initiative. In my city we have a huge need for additional services for children, additional services for people who otherwise might go wanting. I mean, I have 100,000 children who are in desperate need of after-school programs. We have 7,000 people in our prisons who have children that are…that desperately need help. Right today we have 500 people who are members of faith congregations who are helping provide desperately needed services to those children. I think that it’s an idea… it’s not a new idea, but the thrust is definitely headed in the right direction, and I look forward to the opportunity to get more faith-based organizations in my city involved in providing additional services to people who desperately need it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mayor, what do you say to the critics like Pat Robertson who have said that expanding this Charitable Choice program is akin to opening a Pandora’s box?

MAYOR JOHN STREET: Well, you know, the floodgate arguments have always been raised about anything. I think that there are enough lawyers, there are enough people around who are watching everything that the government does to make sure that we do it in a way that’s fair, reasonable and that respects the Constitution of the United States and everybody’s rights. In my city, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis with faith-based organizations to provide a variety of services.

We look forward to expanding the opportunity to get those folks involved in the provision of desperately needed services and, as far as I can tell, there are enough people watching everything that we do so that if there’s any question about the legitimacy of our programs, then those people can step to us. In our city we have already had conversations with representations of the ACLU and other groups that have concerns, and we’re going to work with them. We’ll meet their concerns but we’re not going to sacrifice a great opportunity for people in our city because some skeptics raise some questions. There will always be somebody that’s against everything.

GWEN IFILL: Marvin Olasky, you have written that you consider this program to be potentially religious discrimination. What are your objections to it?

MARVIN OLASKY: Well, I’m five sixths in support of the program and I’m in support of the principles that President Bush has been enunciating for the past few years. My concern is that the way the program is being envisioned by some would allow discrimination against evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Muslims. If you say that, yes, we support all kinds of programs, we’re in favor of pluralism but any kind of program cannot allow for free religious expression, you can’t, for example, counsel a person by pointing to scripture verses and considering those normative for life. If you can’t do that, then that excludes lots of programs.

A few programs would be able to segment their work. They’d be able to say, well, at a certain time we have prayer and at a certain time we have some kind of thanksgiving or something else of that sort. But there are a lot that just would be rendered ineligible in a lot of the most effective programs so the goal here is to help poor inner city kids and other folks in need of this help. It’s desperately needed as Mayor Street says but we should not be starting out by excluding some of the most effective groups.

GWEN IFILL: Religious discrimination, Gary Bauer?

GARY BAUER: Well, I don’t think it has to be religious discrimination, Gwen. I think this is a great initiative, and like any great initiative it’s going to have a few bumps in the road. As you know, in Washington there’s an old saying, no good deed goes unpunished. I think the president has performed a good deed here. With this initiative he is attempting in some ways to reverse the last 35 years of hostility to religious faith in the public square.

We’ve not only had government reticent to help religious organizations who are doing a great job feeding the hungry and helping the poor and so forth, but even large American corporations in many cases won’t give their charitable donations to religious groups even though all the research shows those religious groups are some of the most effective ones out there. So I think the initiative is going to go forward. I think there’s plenty of safeguards to guard against some of the things that some of the skeptics have raised. I’ll go even further than that; I think at the end of the Bush presidency, they will… the conclusion will be that this initiative ends up being one of the most important signature initiatives of this administration when all is said and done.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Rabbi Saperstein?

RABBI DAVID SAPERSTEIN: We all agree that there ought to be robust religious involvement in providing services to the poor and that the government can partner with them. What we profoundly disagree is whether or not only one part of the president’s proposal is good or bad for that effort, and that is direct government funding of churches, synagogues and mosques in providing the services. The Supreme Court of the United States has never upheld that kind of direct aid for good reason. They think it’s bad for religion and bad for government. With government money comes government rules, regulations, monitoring, interference, control. As Marvin Olasky said, either you compromise your mission or you are taking government money to perform that mission. And that is problematic in and of itself.

GWEN IFILL: There’s not a middle ground to be found there?

RABBI DAVID SAPERSTEIN: Not really. The best way to do it is to stick to the four fifths or as Marvin said five sixths of the President’s program we all agree on — using the tax system to generate more support for churches and synagogues in this work, training programs, information sharing programs, technical assistance programs, but not the direct government funding. One way the President unifies the country around all the things we agree on and makes a real difference. The other way, he will divide America and the kind of angry words we heard from Jerry Falwell about Muslims and Gene Rivers, a wonderful inner-city pastor accusing people who disagreed for being racist. That’s exactly the divisiveness that giving money and letting your religious groups compete for it will result in in America. That’s bad for America.

GWEN IFILL: Speaking of some of the reaction to this, Mayor Street, let me read to you what John DiIulio, who’s head of the White House program had to say about critics of the program. He said that predominantly white ex-urban evangelical leaders and national parachurch leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any person other than themselves and their own churches. Obviously this was not welcome, this kind of comment, was not welcome by people in evangelical ex-urban churches. What is your response to it?

MAYOR JOHN STREET: Well, my response is that we will never get everybody to agree on anything, and no matter what language you use, no matter how delicate you are, no matter, you know, what you say and how you describe what you want to do and what kind of terms, somebody is going to have some concern about it. I’ve got a school system where 20,000 children on any given day can miss school. We have… we will have a program, and we are getting ready to announce it, whereby faith-based organizations have agreed to contact every one of those 20,000 children within 24 hours of an unexcused absence. This kind of response is great. And this is the kind of work that is desperately needed in order for us to help these children.

You know, there are children out there that need help. There are families that need help. And it is amazing to me that there are some people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to see great work being done by good people in order to help deserving folks. You know, I commend the president. I think that there will be compromises made along the way about all kinds of different… the details of all of these programs. We respect the Constitution. We don’t want to do anything wrong. But I don’t think that we need to get caught up in the niceties when there are so many people at risk in this city and in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Gene Rivers who Rabbi Saperstein just referred to, Gary Bauer, said that this is breaking down into an argument over race and class which would seem to echo what Mr. DiIulio was saying.

GARY BAUER: Well, any big idea is going to generate a lot of emotion and a lot of pounding on the table and so forth. But, look, we’ve overcome bigger issues than this. There’s already in the law restriction on government bureaucrats trying in any way to eliminate or scale back the faith-based content of a program that’s receiving federal money. If that provision in the law isn’t strong enough, then it can be strengthened. I think the Mayor is absolutely right. The bottom line here is… are real people, people with drug addictions, prisoners that our current system sends right back to prison.

We’re taking the programs that work the best, which are inevitably faith-based programs, and we’re saying to them you’re on your own, you can’t come up with money… you’re not going to get help from anybody in the federal government even though your programs work, you’ve got to do it by yourself. By the way these programs over here, they fail but, man, we’ll just keep throwing money at them. It doesn’t make any sense. The Mayor sees these problems in his city every day. I think the president saw the same thing and he knows that at the end of the day you don’t just treat hunger, you don’t just treat homelessness; you don’t just treat drug addiction, you treat the heart and soul of the individual involved. I think we can work this out.


RABBI DAVID SAPERSTEIN: But right now some of the biggest, most effective, best social service delivery programs are a partnership between the religious community and the government. That is Catholic Charities, the Jewish Federation System, Lutheran Social Ministries. They get literally billions of dollars either in grants or government benefits that flow to them, through people, come to them and they deliver some of the best programs going but they do it by the rules everyone else does, with no exceptions. You don’t discriminate in who you hire. You don’t put, other than the religious act of helping people, religious proselytization or instruction or prayer into it. If you want to do those things you do it with private money.

So my challenge to the Mayor is nothing in the program that’s being presented suggests one more person is going to be helped. There’s no more money going into the program. They’re going to take it away from Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Ministries and federations and give it to churches and synagogues. I would rather keep the money where it is and then stimulate the churches and synagogues through the tax system to give more money. The president has that in his program. That ought to be the focus of it — not violating the Constitution.

GWEN IFILL: Let me give the Mayor a chance to respond to that. What about that argument that not one more person is being helped than is being helped now?

MAYOR JOHN STREET: I couldn’t disagree more. I think more people will be helped. I don’t think anything that the president has proposed and certainly nothing we’re doing in Philadelphia is designed to take money from one good program and put it in another good program. I think what the president is saying is that why should these faith-based organizations be discriminated in any way? Why shouldn’t they have a great opportunity to help us meet our mission? When we get involved, when we get faith-based organizations involved in the delivery of these services I believe you get a different kind of commitment from the people who are providing the services.

These are people who are motivated by a certain sense of love, a certain sense of compassion, a certain need, a certain desire to go out and help and spread a certain good feeling of love and commitment. I don’t know that you can buy that on a straight contract cost basis. We have had just such a wonderful experience, and I… if we could find a way, and I believe you can, to respect the Constitution, then I think we should. I think we can do it. We ought to get these out.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what I want to ask Marvin Olasky about that. How do you find a way?

MARVIN OLASKY: Well, David Saperstein who is politically liberal and I’m politically conservative we are agreed that the way to go here is with tax credits. That’s something where the government won’t be putting its thumb on the scales and saying I prefer this religion, I discriminate against that religion. It’s going to be a level playing field as President Bush has insisted upon — and let individuals decide what they want to contribute to.

There are questions, I know Mayor Street I suspect may have questions and others would have questions about what will happen to some of the urban black churches that may not be well known outside their own areas and will taxpayers in the suburbs and other places send money to them? I edit World which is the fourth largest newsweekly in the country, the evangelical newsweekly. We’re publicizing – Herb Lust’s church in Philadelphia; we’re having a cover story on Tony Evans’ church in Dallas, our goal is to publicize these organizations so that people all over the country will be wanting to contribute to these and wanting to use tax credits in that way.

GWEN IFILL: What about the possibility of vouchers that followed an individual who can spend it wherever they want to whether in a religious or non-religious institution?

MARVIN OLASKY: Well, vouchers are also useful because there the organizations that are effective are receiving the vouchers from the clients, the people that they’re helping. You could even tie these to results so let’s say an after school program that helps kids increase their reading level by a grade would get additional support in that way. But there you’re paying by results. It’s harder sometimes for an organization to make it with vouchers and tax credits rather than perhaps if they have a friend in the White House or somewhere else getting a big grant. But that’s the American way of earning the business and the trust of clients and taxpayers and others. That respects individualism.

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me, I’m sorry. Gary Bauer, the White House seems at least to be taking a baby step back from all of this and letting Congress take the lead. Is that a good idea?

GARY BAUER: Well, I think when you get to this kind of controversy that it makes sense for the legislative process to begin and then we can hear this debate on Capitol Hill. But I don’t see any sign that the White House is backing off from the initiative. I don’t think they should back off. And again I think the kind of concerns that are being raised today by good people are things that can be worked out by good people. I would just ask our viewers tonight to imagine two programs feeding the homeless, one says while they’re feeding the homeless, Jesus loves you and the other just feeds the homeless and somehow we’re going to penalize the one because it mentions a faith-based idea. It doesn’t make any sense.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’ll have to leave that argument there for tonight. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining me.