What’s New?

So what, exactly, is new or different about President Bush’s much-ballyhooed “faith-based” initiative? At least three things….

My mother is in a Jewish nursing home. All the food is kosher. There are mezuzot (decorative boxes containing Jewish prayers) at the entrance of each room. Religious services are provided regularly. Yet the nursing home receives substantial income from Medicaid, Medicare and other government programs.
My husband has undergone cardiac procedures at a local hospital, where crucifixes hang in every room, prayers are delivered over the public-address system three times each day, and clergy make “rounds” to tend to the non-physical needs of the patients. The hospital, too, depends on government funding.
In communities throughout Indiana, church groups provide food, clothing and shelter to the poor in cooperation with township and county officials. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the YMCA and numerous other religious organizations have provided government services for decades.
So what, exactly, is new or different about President Bush’s much-ballyhooed “faith-based” initiative? At least three things:
  • First, religious organizations would be permitted to engage in employment discrimination based upon religious doctrine, even in jobs funded by government dollars. If the religion teaches that women are to be subordinated or gays abominated, employment decisions can be based upon those beliefs.

  • Second, religious doctrine can infuse the programming, short of outright proselytizing. Currently, “faith based” means those whose faith compels them to provide essentially secular services. The Bush initiative expressly allows for religion-based programming.  
  • Third, government funds will flow directly to religious organizations, rather than  to citizens who then choose a particular provider. Government will contract directly with churches or mosques, rather than with tax-exempt affiliates.


Bush’s plan is modeled after the “Charitable Choice” provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The intent of Charitable Choice was to ensure a level playing field for religious organizations that do business with the government—a concern prompted by scattered stories of heavy-handed government officials demanding removal of materials evidencing the religious nature of contractors.
Despite the relative rarity of such problems, they were cited as justification for the legislation, as was the often-repeated assertion that faith-infused programs are more effective than secular ones. (While there is anecdotal support for the hypothesis of greater effectiveness, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” There simply is no empirical data supporting—or rebutting, for that matter—the argument that religious programs do a better job, because no credible studies have as yet been done.)
Expanding the use of religious organizations to provide government services raises a number of issues. How will government monitor performance without intruding on the religious character of smaller organizations? How will grass-roots organizations absorb the added costs of doing business with the government? Will the new approach pass constitutional muster? Will congregations that participate thereby blur or lose their distinctively religious character?
Will new programs truly be extended to all religious bidders, as the President insists? Will elected officials really spend tax dollars to buy prison services from the Nation of Islam?  Homeless shelters from the Church of Scientology?  Child-care from Bob Jones University?
The issue isn’t whether Government will do business with faith-based organizations. It already does. The issue is how.