Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

That little phrase between the dashes — “or against the people you hire” — ignited a political explosion. “Fraud,” declared Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. “What Obama wants,” Mr. Donohue said, is “to secularize the religious workplace.” In its newsletter, the conservative Family Research Council called Mr. Obama’s position “a body blow to religious groups that apply for federal funds.”

It’s ironic that Mr. Donohue, a Catholic, should be complaining so vociferously on this. Because as it happens, the Catholic Church has been doing precisely what Obama is proposing for decades. Catholic Charities, for instance, was receiving government grants for decades before George Bush came on the scene with his “faith-based initiative,” or even Bill Clinton with “charitable choice.” And Catholic Charities doesn’t discriminate in hiring based on religion, as I well know, since I’ve worked there.

Likewise, Catholic hospitals don’t hire only Catholic doctors. What they do do is enforce a particular mission on the tasks and goals the employees are carrying out. That mission may be inspired by religious principles, and it may constrain what the charity offers and does, but it isn’t about the people carrying out that mission having to believe in religion that inspires it, as long as they can do a good, passionate job. For instance, Catholic Hospitals do not provide birth control on site, even to non-Catholics. But that doesn’t mean you have to believe in the Catholic Church’s religious reasons for that policy to practice medicine there. You just have to respect their right not to provide services they think are morally wrong.

What Donahue and others really mean, but won’t say, is that essentially they think they should get government money to fund some form of religious proselytizing or practice. This is simply an unavoidable implication of their desire that all employees be of a certain religion. Why else would they need to have the correct religious beliefs, if their government-funded job wasn’t going to in some way involve taxpayer-funded religious practice?

The far more reasonable sounding Jeffrey Rosen still doesn’t quite convince me:

“It’s not hard to understand why faith-based organizations need to discriminate on the basis of religion to maintain their essentially religious character,” Mr. Rosen wrote. “A Jewish organization forced to hire Baptists soon ceases to be Jewish at all.”

Mr. Rosen also noted that “without the ability to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing staff, religious organizations lose the right to define their organizational mission enjoyed by secular organizations that receive public funds.” If Planned Parenthood could refuse to hire people disagreeing with its views about abortion, why should churches, mosques and synagogues not have the same right?

The analogy here just plain breaks down. There is a distinct difference between hiring someone as the best candidate to carry out a particular mission, and hiring someone based on who they are and what they believe. When the government contracts a church to run a drug treatment program, the mission is to get people off of drugs, and the program itself can be carried out by anyone dedicated to that mission. If the way that the church goes about it, however, requires an employee to profess belief as part of the mission, then it’s not clear why its legitimate to have taxpayers fund this practice of faith, as opposed directly funding only those the services they are supposed to provide.

I say “it’s not clear” because Rosen is also right to note that “law on religious hiring is much more complicated than a condensed reference to discrimination might suggest.” But we really have to look at the examples here, and see if all the raging religious cries of injustice really make sense.

For instance, the Seattle Hebrew Academy wants to be treated “like any other school.” But it’s not like any other school. Only Jewish students can attend it. Would anyone think it fair, or deserving of government funding, if there was a school that Jewish students, and only Jewish students, couldn’t attend? The latter is clearly more pernicious in intent, but the effect is the same: forcing people to pay for schools that refuse their children on principle.

One might argue that non-Jewish students would not want to attend such a school: that’s it’s fair because it’s merely a sort of specialty. But if so, why bar non-Jewish students from attending? Plenty of non-Catholics have attended Catholic schools, not because they wanted their kids to have a Catholic education, but because the schools were simply the best option.

I guess it’s just the framing of the discrimination issue as a “violation of religious rights” that rubs me the wrong way. Take this guy:

“For those of who us who believe in protecting the integrity of our religious institutions, this is a fundamental right,” said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. “He’s rolling back the Bush protections. That’s extremely disappointing.”

But the right here is not the right to discriminate, the right of free association. It’s the right to accept public money to pay for programs that get to ignore public anti-discrimination laws. The reality is that getting someone to give you money is not a “right,” and when you do get someone to give you money, it’s going to have strings attached as part of the bargain.

And when the money comes from the taxpayers, the strings that are attached are the laws those taxpayers have established on what can or cannot be done with that money.

Might this “secularize” charities? I doubt it. Nothing about anti-discrimination laws requires charities to give up “mission” control to the whims of people not of the same faith. But there’s something sort of sad in the very idea. Those fears makes religious charity look far more about ideology than flat-out wanting to help people. And it makes religious charity employees look like they care far more about sharing an ideology with their fellow employees than communing with all people that want to serve the need they’re there to serve.

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One Response to Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

  1. Terry says:

    There is a worry that a charity might be forced to do things that they think might be unhelpful. An example of this would be the Catholic adoption agency in Boston which was forced to either place children with gay parents or else shut down. I doubt if a person of your leanings would consider that a tragedy, but if the state interference becomes too intrusive it could lead to a breakdown with church-state cooperation when it comes to social programs. You’ve worked for Catholic Charities, so you must know that the amount of volunteer labour and church money supplementing government money is a good value for the government. Without the participation of the churches, the government would have to spend far more money to provide the services that they provide now. So if you are correct, and the government will not interfere with the charities mission and enforce a particular belief system then I think everyone can live with it. I think though, there is a lot of mistrust that those who thing my religion is a “bad idea” will respect those boundaries.

    On the schools issue, I grew up in a public school and none of my teachers were Catholic. As such, I never heard a good thing about the Catholic Church and many bad things when I was being educated. It was only when I went to university and courses on medieval history and philosophy that I got a sympathetic view of the church, from non-catholic and catholic university professors. Now that I’m a parent myself with an infant, I would rather send my child to a Catholic school. I don’t see why I should have to pay twice just to receive an education that tells the truth about my culture’s history. If government money isn’t provided based on how many children are being educated by the Catholic (or Jewish, or Muslim etc) school would it be more acceptable if I got an education tax credit?

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