TOPICS > Nation

Faith-Based Initiatives

December 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: It’s been a signature issue for President Bush, steering government money to religious organizations that do good work in their own communities.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We must bring the hope and healing of faith-based services to more and more Americans. Government has often been slow to recognize the importance of faith-based and community efforts. That’s changing, and more changes are needed.

GWEN IFILL: And with the stroke of a pen, the President did just that in Philadelphia earlier this month, approving executive orders that allow social service groups with religious ties to qualify for federal grants and contracts.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross or a crescent on the wall, or a religious commitment in the charter. The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end. (Applause)

GWEN IFILL: The President’s order would: Treat faith-based and secular organizations equally; allow religious charities to compete for federal grant money; and permit religious groups to receive that money even if they refuse to hire people of other faiths. During his Philadelphia speech, which was overshadowed by his condemnation of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mr. Bush said religious groups should not be denied help because of their beliefs.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In government, we’re still fighting old attitudes, habits, and rules, that discriminate against religious groups for no good purpose. I recognize that government has no business endorsing a religious creed, or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching. That is not the business of the government.

Yet government can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith. (Applause) And when government gives that support, charities and faith- based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission. (Applause)

GWEN IFILL: By invoking his executive power to implement the new rules, President Bush sidestepped a Congressional showdown. An earlier version of his faith-based plan stalled on Capitol Hill last year after a heated debate over the separation of church and state.

GWEN IFILL: We pick up the debate now over the status of the Bush administration’s charity plan with James Towey, the director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Reverend Luis Cortes, director of Nueva Esperanza in Philadelphia, a not-for-profit community development corporation that promotes the establishment of Hispanic owned and operated institutions. Christopher Anders of the legislative council at the American Civil Liberties Union. And the Rabbi Jack Moline of the Interfaith Alliance, a non- partisan clergy-led grassroots organization promoting faith in civic life. 

Mr. Towey, let’s start by talking about the President’s plan. Pick up where the piece left off. Why doesn’t it violate the separation of church and state?

JAMES TOWEY: I think President Bush is picking up on what I think our country has been doing for decades in turning to faith- based organizations and grassroots groups to help our poor, to help our addicts, our homeless, children of prisoners and others. This has been something America has worked out over the years to delicately balance the need on the one hand for faith-based organizations to maintain their identity, and, on the other hand, to fully implement their services and their care in helping our country’s poor.

The President doesn’t want to touch the separation of church and state with this plan. He does want to knock down the wall that separates the poor from effective programs. And I think that’s why he’s undertaken this initiative with such passion.

GWEN IFILL: By knocking down that wall, don’t you also murk things up a little bit in terms of who does what and what gets preached?

JAMES TOWEY: Well, I think we have to have important safeguards in place and a clear understanding that faith-based groups that receive federal money can’t preach with the money. They can’t promote religious belief or practice, and they can’t discriminate when it comes to who they serve that walks through their soup kitchen door. You don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or faith. You certainly don’t impose prayer on people, but you also allow these organizations to do what they do best, which is to help the homeless and to help addicts into treatment and recovery.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Anders, why isn’t this a reasonable approach, knocking down walls so more things can get done?

CHRISTOPHER ANDERS: The President’s executive order is not about helping the poor. There isn’t a single new dollar coming out of this program. What this is about is discrimination; government- funded discrimination. It’s about allowing religious organizations to take federal dollars, and with those federal taxpayer dollars running federal programs to decide that they’re going to hire only members of their own faith. So if you don’t agree with their religious beliefs, you won’t be able to participate in providing government federally-funded services.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Anders, one man’s discrimination, in this case, is another man’s chance for opportunity. Why isn’t there room for middle ground here?

CHRISTOPHER ANDERS: Well, there really is room for middle ground. What the President did not say, and the implication that he leaves open is that there is… that religious organizations don’t participate in federal programs. In fact, they do. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, United Jewish Communities and countless other religiously-affiliated organizations participate in federal programs, and some of them actually get a majority of their funds.

But the difference is that all those organizations agree to comply with the same rules that apply to everybody else that is spending federal taxpayer dollars in providing government services.

What this is about is creating a special right for some organizations that don’t want to comply with the civil rights protections. They extend all the way back to FDR, when he was integrating defense contractors and shipyards, when he said that you couldn’t take… you can’t take federal taxpayer dollars and use those taxpayer dollars to refuse to hire people who don’t share your religious beliefs or are a different race than you. That was the beginning of breaking the back of segregation. It’s ironic that we’re now revisiting that issue in this context.

GWEN IFILL: Let me direct some of your challenges to Reverend Cortes. Why can’t the large religious- based organizations like catholic charities be counted on to service their communities?

REV. LUIS CORTES: Well, many of them do, and they do serve and they serve well. But there are thousands of people who Catholic Charities or the Jewish Federation or any of the other large faith-based charities don’t reach. Even though they don’t reach them, those people live in poverty and they need assistance. Local congregations and local neighborhoods are best suited to address those needs quickly. You also have to understand a lot of these charity… of the larger charities are not found throughout this country.

A quick example, in every community, in every Latino community in this country, you’ll find two institutions: A neighborhood bar and a neighborhood congregation. And it is the congregation that is best suited in many cases to address the primary need of these families. Unfortunately, currently the law has prohibited religious groups to be able to compete for federal dollars.

This is not a gift. It’s not a giveaway. What’s being provided by this new act is the opportunity for congregations to compete for federal dollars. If they win the competition, they then will be able to serve with those federal dollars at the local community.

GWEN IFILL: You alluded to the importance of this kind of opportunity for Latino groups and Latino organizations. Is this proposal that the President has been promoting, is it of special interest, of importance for minority communities?

REV. LUIS CORTES: It is because many minority communities are cut off from federal dollars. If you look closely, the only example we have of minority communities accessing federal dollars through government has been with HUD.

And what we’ve been able to do through this movement is now open up the conversation with the Department of Labor and with Health and Human Services and other federal government agencies to be able to open up access to those agencies so that those dollars can get to the grassroots. This is not about us discriminating against others. It’s about the fact that we have been discriminated against for many years.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this notion of discrimination, Rabbi Moline. One man’s discrimination, as I alluded to, is something else for somebody else. Somebody feels discriminated they don’t get a chance to proselytize in accepting this money. Others feel they are pressured to. What is your definition of where discrimination falls in this kind of a program?

RABBI JACK MOLINE: Well, it’s hard to put a label on something like discrimination because it’s such a charged word. What the federal government will demand of religious institutions is that they abandon the essentially religious nature of what they do, which is the strength of what local congregations and religious institutions are able to use to reach out to their sort of self- selected constituency. In order for a local congregation– as Reverend Cortes was talking about– to qualify for these dollars, they would have to abandon what makes them uniquely religious, uniquely suited to deal on a volunteer basis with people who already have a stake in their particular communities.

GWEN IFILL: You’re arguing that these groups ought to be able to proselytize, and because of that, they should not be accepting federal money.

RABBI JACK MOLINE: Exactly right. We’re hoping – the Interfaith Alliance — to bring the message that we need to protect the essentially religious nature of these institutions, to take away the ability to pray with someone who comes to a church, asking for divine guidance to deal with an addiction or to remove the teachings of Torah, of someone who comes to a synagogue looking for an opportunity to better his life is like saying that all we have to do to make Christmas a universal holiday is to take Jesus out of it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Towey, you’re quoted once as making the distinction for people who would seek these grants for instance instead of asking for a grant for St. John’s Shelter, they should just ask for a grant for John’s Shelter, and just dropping the “St.” From the title would make them more eligible for this kind of… for this money and allow them to compete. Wouldn’t that be doing just what the Rabbi was just suggesting, which is cleansing faith from essentially faith-driven idea?

JAMES TOWEY: Well, my point was that it was ridiculous, the current system, where it just… you were judged by your name. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York City is a good example. They were denied the ability to apply for a grant just because the word “Jewish” was in their name. President Bush wants the question to be, “is your program successful, is it effective,” not, “is your program faith- based or not?”

And I think we found in our country so many groups that have been stiff-armed by the government and kept away from being able to address these urgent needs in our communities, and I think President Bush wants to put an end to that because there is a moral necessity. And I think groups can still certainly pray, they just can’t pray on Uncle Sam’s dollar. They can’t do that under a federal grant.

Many of these organizations have been receiving federal money for years and doing their jobs well, just like Mr. Anders said. If someone comes later and says, “I’m getting job training, but I also need to deal with my addiction. And perhaps I want a spiritual life…” they can do at the center, just not on government money.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you about something? You talked about Uncle Sam’s dime. Mr. Anders suggested that there’s no more money going to this. Is that true? And is there a responsibility that the private sector would normally have or that government would normally have that a program like this is taking away?

JAMES TOWEY: You know, President Bush has made very clear that government has a fundamental responsibility to its citizens. I think the President made it clear in Philadelphia there is no tradeoff here. There was no money with the faith-based initiative.

Here’s why: Because a couple senators and extreme group blocked it. There was new money. In fact, there was $1.3 billion in social service spending, brand new money, plus billions of dollars and new charitable giving dollars that were sitting there in the Care Act supported by Senator Lieberman, and a bunch of Democrats, Sen. Clinton, Bill Nelson of Florida, as well as Republicans.

To me, it was so simple. Here’s a chance to provide immediate relief to the poor. Here’s new money. And it was blocked by a couple of groups that wanted to fight over religious hiring. President Bush wants the debate to return to where it started: “How can we house our homeless; how can we treat our addicts?”

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Anders, Mr. Towey just said religious hiring was essentially what blocked the ability to get funding? Your reaction.

CHRISTOPHER ANDERS: That’s exactly right. The White House refused to allow any legislation to move forward that would provide any real dollars to help the poor unless what was attached to it was the right for people to take federal dollars and discriminate based on religion. That was so unpopular and so wrong that Congress refused to pass that legislation for two years.

The calculations that the White House made and reason that the President circumvented Congress was that President Bush realized that even with an entirely Republican Congress, that idea of using federal taxpayer dollars to discriminate in hiring is… would be so unpopular and so wrong that he could not even get it through an entirely Republican Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Let me give Mr. Towey a chance to respond to that briefly.

JAMES TOWEY: The religious hiring issue centers around a civil right that faith-based groups have had for 30 years. The question is, “do they lose right to hire according to religious beliefs when they take federal money?” You might be surprised to know that it was President Clinton in 1996 who answered that question and said, “Yes, they can hire according to their religious beliefs, and take federal welfare-to-work dollars.” He signed another law in 1998 permitting it, and again in 2000. So, you have got three federal laws that operate this way.

There are not problems. I think President Bush says, “We need to have a little more clarity out there.” Let’s stop bogging down because the real losers in this religious hiring debate are the poor, who are denied services – just as what took place at the end of last Congress when a couple senators and some extreme voices on the left said, “let’s stop this legislation.” It was sad.

GWEN IFILL: Let me turn to Rev. Cortes, because I want to hear a little bit more about what happened when the rubber hits the road on a program like this. What are you using this aid for? How does it help you?

REV. LUIS CORTES: Well, in many cases, it helps organizations build infrastructure, so that in one case you’ll have people who are feeding folks and because they can access government dollars, they can actually improve the kitchen and hire some staff and actually feed more people. In other cases, you have folks who volunteer and do mentoring, but it allows for the acquisition of a computer lab in a neighborhood that doesn’t have any. So the government dollars are actually plugs, or allows the local group to take a step further in what they’re doing and in the services they’re providing.

GWEN IFILL: Do the government dollars supplant other aid you would otherwise be receiving?

REV. LUIS CORTES: Normally it doesn’t. Normally, as I mentioned, it adds infrastructure and it allows a group to be able to have more equipment or to provide more service.

GWEN IFILL: Rabbi MOLINE, what are the strings tied to money like this?

RABBI JACK MOLINE: The strings tied, obviously, is that faith-based organizations would be competing for the dollars that are out there. So the investment that’s made in infrastructure in a religious institution takes money away from the non-religious institution.

Should there be violations of federal law of federal standards, civil rights? Should it be determined, as I think it would be, that these kinds of allocations run contrary to the mandates of the Constitution, then we’re left with nothing for the poor in those communities because the existing institutions have been dismantled. They’re no longer funded. And the faith-based institutions no longer have their funding either.

GWEN IFILL: That will have… sorry, that will have to be the last word. Thank you all for joining us.