News - 'Should faith-based charities be federally funded?'
Yes. Bush's plan wouldn't begin to violate separation of church and state
George W. Bush always said he was a "compassionate conservative." What he meant became clearer this month, as he launched a two-pronged drive to help faith-based organizations do more to combat social ills.
Creating a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, Bush moved to give religious nonprofits the same access to government funding of social work enjoyed by secular organizations.
Under the proposal, public funds could support church-based soup kitchens and substance-abuse clinics but not Sunday services or Bible studies. "Our plan," Bush vowed, "will not favor religious institutions over non-religious institutions."
In essence, Bush would bolster a provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act giving faith-based groups access to public funding of some social work. He would strip away lingering institutional barriers, making government agencies partners of faith-based groups instead of adversaries.
While government programs can and do help people, such efforts tend to be expensive, inflexible and inefficient. In supporting new funding of nonprofits both secular and religious, Bush would move private "armies of compassion" to the frontline fight against hopelessness and despair.
Bush's approach makes sense. It is attracting widespread bipartisan support in Washington and will appeal to an overwhelming majority of the American people.
It does not sit well, predictably, with the anti-religious faithful on the civil liberties fringe. The ACLU is beside itself.
Yet, with tax monies earmarked for non-religious purposes only, Bush's plan wouldn't begin to violate the First Amendment's establishment clause. The Supreme Court, which already allows public funding of Baptist hospitals and Catholic school computers, is likely to agree.
Some on the right raise more legitimate concerns about a threat, not to secular government but to faith-based institutions themselves. A long-running public-private partnership, they warn, could drain from religious groups the very faith that makes them distinctive. Leaders on both sides must guard against this at all cost, and there is every reason to think Bush will do his part.
Obviously compassionate, Bush's faith-based initiative is conservative in its reliance on private institutions, its expansion of choices, its call to individual action. No dewy-eyed utopian, Bush offers a refreshingly gritty and, yes, conservative vision of progress.
"Real change," Bush said, "happens street by street, heart by heart — one soul, one conscience at a time." And he's anxious to get started.