Read more of Kim Lawton's interview with Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Community for Religious Liberty:
Anytime the government enters into formal, contractual relationships with houses of worship, red flags should go up for people who care about religious liberty. Religious liberty has thrived under our system of government with the separation of church and state largely because the government has left religious entities, including houses of worship, to flourish on their own merits. Whenever government funds religious entities, it risks funding religion in a way that is incompatible with our constitutional tradition. Religion in America has been a voluntary endeavor. It has flourished well under our system of government.
When religion is funded by government, it tends to be controlled by government. Religious entities start answering to government's concerns instead of matters of [their] own conscience and religious tradition. Religions are threatened because they become entangled with government process, with the bureaucracy and red tape of government. They also lose their independence, their autonomy that gives them such moral force to speak out for justice in society, when they become enmeshed with or tied too closely to a political party or to government in general. So there are many threats.
A house of worship might thrive because it's dependent on voluntary contributions and voluntary efforts of the people in that community. And it can totally change when they are seen as accepting tax dollars and serving government's purposes instead of God's purposes.
We have a long tradition of religious entities cooperating with government under traditional rules that protect religious liberty. What I hear the administration saying is we need to change those rules. I say the burden is on them to show us why we need that change. ...
There is a real tension between allowing [an] entity to operate in its full religious nature and at the same time protecting against the impermissible advancement of religion with government funding. It's hard for me to see how we can ensure that religious entities operate in the way that they do fully according to their religious dictates and at this time guard against government funding of religion, which is a core value that has protected religious freedom in our country.
I think it's very unfortunate that some people would use this tragedy [Hurricane Katrina] to advance a policy that's been extremely controversial. It's been controversial for a good reason, and that's because it causes a threat to religious freedom. I do think there is great sympathy and empathy for the enormous needs that people face in the Gulf Coast. I think it requires creativity and a greater cooperation on behalf of all of us -- government entities and volunteering organizations, including houses of worship. But I don't think this should be an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we do church-state relations.
I think that there will be houses of worship that under other circumstances would not consider taking government funding that will certainly be tempted. And for those houses of worship, we can understand that temptation. What we would say is that they need to go in very cautiously and carefully, aware of the risk of government funding. That's the risk -- that they become dependent on that government funding, that they are subject to rules and regulations that get them into legal trouble that they aren't prepared to handle, and that they lose their moral authority and independence that has served them so well.
We should be concerned with getting houses of worship and other religious entities back on their feet -- ones that provided such great services and have such enormous needs. We really need to be concerned that they're able to continue to respond, that they're going to be there for the next disaster. And when we fundamentally change how they operate, I think [there is] the risk that they would not be able to do what they did in this situation in the years to come.
We need to be careful about creating exceptions that will later be expanded and actually swallow up the rule [separating church and state]. While I certainly understand the immediate needs, I also would encourage those houses of worship and religious entities to be aware about how this would affect their long-term ability to serve their community. There many be private sources of funding that do not cause the same complications and do not have the same risks to these entities that the government funding has involved. First we should seek to make sure that these groups have access to private funding. And we need to be careful about any kind of false promises that government might make.
We have many stories about religion entities that we're hearing -- that they were going to be reimbursed and helped from the government. And weeks after the hurricane, they had still not seen any government agency. I think it's important that while many will consider, and maybe for the first time engage in, a more financial relationship with government, they need to go in with their eyes wide open, aware of the risks.
All of us need to be aware that whenever we create these exceptions to the rule we risk opening the door for the next situation and fundamentally changing a tradition and a practice that has really served religion very, very well.
[The recent law allowing student evacuees to use federal vouchers for religious schools] was very troubling. Voucher proposals have been around for decades, and they have not fared very well for numerous reasons -- mainly for education policy reasons [and] justice issues about how we fund public schools and church-state reasons -- whether or not it's constitutional to allow taxpayer dollars to fund specific religious education. And yet in this tragic situation where there's a huge need for quick response, we see Congress pushing through the system that really opens the door to larger voucher programs. ...