On the faith-based initiative, Obama's way isn't Bush's way

Obama sees cooperation between church and state, but rejects Bush's approach out of hand.

Published July 1, 2008 3:02PM (EDT)

The notion of the government contracting with religious ministries to provide social services is not, on its face, scandalous or unconstitutional. Groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services have partnered with public officials for decades, almost always without incident. There have always been safeguards in place to protect church-state separation, the integrity of the ministry and the rights of those who receive the benefits.

The safeguards were just common sense, and helped make these partnerships legal. Independent religious agencies, not churches themselves, handled the public funds. Tax dollars supported only secular programs, and no religious discrimination with public funds was permitted.

So what happened? George W. Bush decided he wanted to rewrite the rules. His White House identified those safeguards and renamed them "barriers." To protect the First Amendment and the interests of taxpayers, the president said, was to stand in the way of churches helping families in need. The safeguards, Bush insisted, had to be eliminated.

I was working at Americans United for Separation of Church and State when Bush was pushing this, and I worked specifically on this project. So when I saw this Associated Press feed this morning, I nearly fell out of my chair.

Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is announcing plans that would expand President Bush's program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and -- in a move sure to cause controversy -- support their ability to hire and fire based on faith.

Thankfully, this AP feed was wrong, it's being corrected, and Barack Obama has not completely lost his mind. I obtained a copy of the speech Obama is going to deliver today, and he specifically outlines a faith-based agenda that in no way resembles Bush's approach. In fact, it's largely the opposite.

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea -- so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

Obama has identified the pre-Bush safeguards and wants to strengthen them, not abandon them.

By all appearances, Obama's vision is consistent with what Bush's plan would have been, if Bush cared about constitutional law, the interests of taxpayers, the rights of families in need and the integrity of religious institutions. From Obama's speech:

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who've come together around a common faith, they're usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they're particularly well-placed to offer help. As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

That's why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.

I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

There's simply nothing wrong with this. If Obama honors church-state separation and keeps the safeguards in place, as he clearly said he would, there's no reason the government can't partner with ministries willing to provide a secular social service.

That said, that AP feed really got me nervous there for a minute ...

By Steve Benen

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