Faith and the Constitution

  During his recent press conference, President Bush was not expecting to be accused of the likes of precipitating mass murder; but then, he wasn't accustomed to dealing with Helen Thomas either. She went after his faith-based initiatives with all the subtlety of a heat-seeking missile. It's an indication of the hostility secular elites bear toward the influence of religion in public life. When the President called on her, Thomas asked, "Why do you refuse to respect the wall between church and state? The mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter." Bush tried to answer. "I strongly respect the separation of church and state," he said, but Thomas rudely cut him off. "You wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did," she snapped. The President explained that his proposals would not violate the Constitution, but Thomas would have none of it. "You are a secular official, not a missionary," she snarled. Oh, the joys of an unbiased press corps. Thomas is not alone in her hostility to faith-based initiatives. The New York Times last week went after Samaritan's Purse for its volunteers holding a prayer meeting before rebuilding homes destroyed in the El Salvador earthquake. And the government stepped in this week and cautioned Samaritan's Purse. Imagine! Well, the President has to make his case. When it comes to government support of faith-based programs, constitutional law is, after all, well settled. The Supreme Court has ruled that government must allow secular and religious groups to compete on an equal footing for government grants. Second, the Court has ruled that when the government funds programs run by faith-based groups, it cannot interfere with the group's right to define its own mission-just as government may not interfere with a secular group's vision. As George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu observes, this means that when Planned Parenthood hires a staff, it has the right to discriminate against people who don't share its ideological views. Equal treatment demands that faith groups have the same right. Where the government does draw the line--and rightly so--is in how faith-based groups treat beneficiaries. Presbyterians, for example, can refuse to hire a Muslim drug counselor, but they can't discriminate against Muslims seeking help. Of course, for 25 years Prison Fellowship has reached out to people of all faiths, and no faith. Prison Fellowship, by the way, takes no federal funds, though we've run very successful faith-based programs. Many critics in my opinion are using the church-state issues--sure to inflame passions--to mask deeper objections. They know that faith-based solutions are only part of the President's broader agenda to pry power away from the nanny-state and invest it instead in community and voluntary associations. Bush seems intent on undoing the failed government programs of the last 40 years and empowering people in the communities and churches to help themselves. It's a profoundly conservative understanding of how society should function, but in pushing his proposals, Bush is taking on powerful vested interests. You and I must help make the case for faith-based programs. Helen Thomas notwithstanding, these initiatives won't lead to religious wars or the slaughter of millions. Instead, they will bless the poor, the hungry, the alcoholic, the neglected child, the prisoner--and bring them peace of God.


Chuck Colson


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