Harder Choices

Little noted amid the full-frontal assault on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) latest sensationalistic folly was President George W. Bush’s move to ease the flow of federal dollars to faith-based charities.

Bush’s Dec. 12 executive order implemented key elements of his Faith-Based and Community Initiative, including some of those contained in the bipartisan Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act legislation that stalled in the Senate this year.

What he couldn’t win by fighting, he won by fiat. Some Jewish groups are outraged. Others elated. Which should you be? How about half-and-half.

The Federal government and religious charities have long worked together to fund and provide services to the needy. Federal dollars to Jewish charities began flowing as early as 1890, according to Diana Aviv, vice president for Public Policy and director of the Washington Action Office of the United Jewish Communities (UJC). Whether Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim or Jewish, groups that receive state monies have had to keep their government contract work separate from their religious activities. Not only must they set up separate entities to administer the contracts, they must provide the services in an area free of religious practice or symbol.

Bush said his action will ensure that no organization applying for grants will be discriminated against based on religion, and that no beneficiary of federally funded social services may be discriminated against based on religion. Another provision of the action allows religion to be taken into account when hiring for a government-funded position.

That in itself was enough to anger Hadassah and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), among other Jewish groups. "By directing federal funds to sectarian organizations that discriminate in hiring," said Bonnie Lipton, Hadassah’s national president, "the government not only weakens our civil rights, but undermines the principles of separation of church and state." The AJC released a statement expressing "alarm" at Bush’s action, which, it wrote, "advances the use of taxpayer dollars to fund social services provided by religious institutions without adequate church-state safeguards and anti-discrimination protections."

Meanwhile, Orthodox groups applauded the president. "We are gratified [that Bush endorsed] the principle of government neutrality toward religion as opposed to government hostility toward religion," said Nathan Diament, director Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Indeed, there have been unjustified cases of government bias toward religious institutions. After suffering severe earthquake damage two years ago, the Seattle Hebrew Academy in Washington State was denied emergency funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because of the school’s religious affiliation. In signing the action, Bush directed FEMA to revise its policy on disaster relief for faith-based nonprofits.

But there are real church-state concerns here. Last year, the AJC and the Texas Civil Rights project filed an action against a taxpayer-funded program that bought and distributed Bibles to beneficiaries in order to help them "change with Jesus Christ … from the inside out." Where many on the Christian Right see Bush’s action as a retreat from his early commitment to faith-based initiatives, many Jewish groups see it as another charge at the wall of separating church and state.

Among those Jewish institutions trying to walk the middle road is the UJC, the central fundraising and social services agency for the Jewish community. "There are parts about it that would help our community and parts about it that are deeply troubling," Aviv told me while visiting Los Angeles this week. "To sort through it will take more than a knee-jerk reaction."

UJC receives between $5 billion and $7 billion in federal funding for its variety of social service programs. In Los Angeles, those monies help support critical programs, such as Jewish Family Service’s "Meals on Wheels," which provides 650 homebound seniors with hot meals each day of the year. Jewish Federation funding makes up for part of the difference between the federal funds and the actual cost of the meals, but there is no way any large faith community engaged in social service could replace the role of federal funding in meeting its clients needs.

The key is balance. On the one hand is our commitment to working on behalf of the disadvantaged, on the other our understanding that our security as Americans and as Jews rests in no small part on the separation of church and state.

"People who care deeply both about religious liberty and about the provision of effective social services disagree about the constitutionality and advisability of ‘charitable choice,’" wrote professor Marshall Breger in "In Good Faith," perhaps the most fair-minded study of this issue.

The key is to work to incorporate in these funding structures enough accountability, protection and oversight so that government can be a help, not a hindrance, to the best social service work being done by faith communities. "I believe that our government should support the works of charity that are motivated by faith," Bush said in a March 2001 speech at the White House to the AJC, "but our government should never fund the teaching of faith, itself."

That is a noble ideal, and one worth holding him to.