Some recent developments have added fuel to the debate about how separate church and state should actually be. Central to these changes has been legislation permitting federal dollars to be awarded to religious institutions. Learn more about these recent developments below.
Welfare Reform Act and Ashcroft Amendment (1996)
The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, signed by President Clinton, enabled some houses of worship to receive tax dollars for delivery of social services, due to an amendment sponsored by then Senator, now Attorney General, John Ashcroft. Prior to that year, government funds could go to religious groups for social services, but the institutions were required to have separate, secular nonprofit entities to administer the programs. With the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 act, religious charities were permitted to compete for government welfare dollars.
Some groups fear that the ramifications of adding religious groups to the federal welfare equation are far-reaching. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force complains that the 1996 Welfare Act also "allowed religious institutions to discriminate in their hiring practices on the basis of religious belief, gender, race and ethnicity, and other factors. Moreover, the 1996 law eliminated safeguards that were intended to prevent recipients from being subjected to unwanted proselytizing, the display of large religious icons in areas where services were provided and other forms of captive-audience religious expression."
In January 2001, President Bush announced the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in initially five, and later seven Cabinet agencies: the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education and the Agency for International Development.
The Office was formed to lead a "'determined attack on need' by strengthening and expanding the role of faith-based and community organizations in addressing the nation's social problems. The President envisions a faith-friendly public square where faith-based organizations can compete equally with other groups to provide government or privately-funded services."
Critics say that Bush's faith-based initiative doesn't have clear enough protections against prosleytizing and discrimination in hiring. But it's not just Republicans who've thought that taxpayers' money should be given to religious organizations to run social welfare programs. In fact, during his campaign for the presidency, then Vice President Al Gore proposed doing something very similar.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) strongly oppose giving broad-based funding to churches and other religious groups. Charging that faith-based initiatives violate the separation of church and state in various ways, AU refers to such initiatives as "Taxpayer Funded Religious Discrimination."
Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act
A version of this bill, seeking to offer tax incentives to encourage charitable giving, sparked debate in the Senate in 2002 but was not passed by the time Congress adjourned for the year. On April 9, 2003, the Senate passed a modified version of the bill, which omitted the contested language that would have allowed faith-based groups to maintain their religious character while receiving federal funds for their social service programs.
The final fate of this legislation has yet to be determined.