Manna from Sonny

Faith-based amendment attacked as vehicle for school vouchers

Sen. Seth Harp is not at all worried that the faith-based amendment he's sponsoring on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue will result in taxpayer-funded proselytizing by Georgia churches. Quite the contrary; he's counting on it.

"I want that to occur," says the Columbus Republican, who cites as an example Magnolia Manor, a chain of elderly care homes based in Americus that receives state Medicaid funds despite the fact that it describes itself as "a ministry of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church."

"If there's anyone who needs the comfort of religion, it's someone near the end of his life," Harp explains.

By the same token, he adds, youngsters who find themselves in the care of a state-funded but church-run orphanage could benefit greatly from the "moral guidance and values" that a religious institution is equipped to provide.

Harp's lack of concern over the prospect of public funds helping to promote religious doctrine highlights one of several areas of contention over Perdue's proposal, which some critics have attacked as being little more than a smoke screen for religious school vouchers. The vouchers, critics claim, could further weaken Georgia's ailing public schools. The bill could reach the Senate floor this week and, if passed, would need to be approved by Georgia voters.

On its face, the governor's "Faith and Family Services" amendment is possibly the simplest bill that lawmakers will deal with all session. Less than a page long, it seeks to overturn a state constitutional provision that prohibits public money from being given to religious institutions.

The amendment's champions point out that it would merely bring Georgia into alignment with the U.S. Constitution, as amended under President Bush's faith-based initiative plan. Georgia is one of 37 states that have a stronger restriction on faith-based funding than the federal government.

The irony is that Georgia officials have long turned a blind eye to the rule, allowing county and state funding to support dozens of church-run institutions such as Magnolia Manor.

While Sen. Doug Stoner agrees that the legal inconsistency needs correcting, the Smyrna Democrat says we don't need to demolish the wall between church and state in Georgia to do it.

"There are many religiously affiliated organizations out there that do good work, and I have no problem helping them out," he says. "But you have to set rules."

Stoner claims we don't need another constitutional amendment. He's introduced an alternative measure designed to help churches figure out how to stay on the right side of existing law. In fact, Georgia law already allows a church-affiliated group to compete for government contracts - provided it is incorporated as a separate entity.

Perdue, Harp and others insist that it is too burdensome for churches to be forced to incorporate stand-alone charities, but Stoner says that's nonsense.

"You've got to keep them separate so that public funds can't be intermingled with church money," he says, citing current allegations against DeKalb County's Gospel Tabernacle, which has been accused of siphoning off grant money intended for an affiliated charity. The church's pastor, Bishop Wiley Jackson Jr., has defended his actions by saying the grant rules are too ill-defined.

To combat such scenarios, Stoner's legislation calls for annual audits of charitable organizations, a requirement already on the books. He believes Perdue's bill, which would allow churches to receive state money directly, is an open invitation to fraud.

"My colleagues on the other side who say they're fiscal conservatives should be first out of the gate to support my resolution," Stoner says.

Keeping state-funded charities separate from churches is also the only way to ensure that they abide by laws against discrimination on race, gender or religion, Stoner says. Otherwise, a Baptist-run detox center that holds a county contract could turn away a drunk simply because he doesn't agree to join in prayer.

"Proselytizing is fine if it's on your own dime," Stoner says.

Harp agrees that there should be some ground rules on who should receive public grants and how the money should be accounted for. But he says many of those issues can be worked out administratively by the Department of Human Resources, which oversees state health services.

Still, Harp's solution may offer scant comfort to those who recall that the DHR board is chaired by Bruce Cook, a self-proclaimed evangelical who has been accused of imposing a right-wing Christian agenda on public health policy.

Yet the biggest concern Stoner and many others have expressed is that Perdue's amendment actually might be intended to pave the way for parochial school vouchers.

"If the governor's bill passes as written, it means public funds could be used for private, religious schools," explains Jocelyn Whitfield, lead lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher's organization. The GAE has long opposed vouchers because they would divert money away from the state's struggling public schools.

Whitfield says the only obstacle standing in the way of public funds being used to pay tuition at religious schools is the state constitutional provision that Perdue's amendment seeks to reverse. As Harp and others point out, there's nothing in state law now that prevents school voucher programs. And the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled that vouchers can be used for religious schools, as is being done in Cleveland, Ohio.

Although the governor and other Republicans have expressed support for school vouchers, it hasn't made financial sense to launch such a program so far, Whitfield explains. The amount of money the state could offer - Georgia spends an average of $6,500 a year to educate a child - wouldn't go far at, say, Woodward Academy, or the handful of other private, nonparochial schools in the state.

Therefore, the only way to make a voucher system work is to ensure they can be used at religious schools, whose lower tuition costs typically are underwritten by an affiliated church.

Even the amendment's staunchest critics aren't suggesting that Perdue would immediately pursue a voucher program if his bill passes. The governor still needs to run for re-election in 2006 and is mindful that the GAE is one of the state's most powerful political lobbies.

But Stoner and others are worried that the amendment is something of a Trojan horse that could win the necessary two-thirds vote in the Legislature if it remains under the guise of a simple bill to help out churches. Later on, he says, a statewide voucher system could be launched by a simple legislative majority, a much lower hurdle.

Stoner says it's worth noting that the original Perdue amendment indicated that it would enable "public funding of health, educational and social services" by religious organizations.

But the word "educational" later was taken out in committee by Harp, a move Stoner contends was done to obscure the obvious link to school vouchers. Harp maintains that the bill is not intended to lead to vouchers.

Stoner's alternative bill, by contrast, would specifically prohibit public funds from being used for school vouchers.

"If they're serious that this isn't about vouchers, then let's put that in writing," Stoner says. "It's like what Ronald Reagan said about the Soviet Union: 'Trust but verify.'"