Faith-based dodge

Today, the Supreme Court ruled on a number of cases that have piled up as its current term comes to an end. One of the issues the court ruled on today was whether funding President Bush’s “faith-based programs initiative” is a constitutional use of taxpayer money. The court didn’t rule on the case, but instead ruled that taxpayers have no standing in the court to bring such a case. From a technical perspective, this is a useful ruling. If every taxpayer or taxpayer organization had standing, we could tie up the court with questions about every law on the books.

The larger question – whether organizations with religious affiliations should have a special program that gives them money to do their work – is left open. Let’s investigate this question by looking, if possible, at the rules of the program. We begin with the website for the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) [1]. The President’s vision of the program is summarized as follows: “Yet, all too often, the Federal government has put in place complicated
rules and regulations preventing FBCOs from competing for funds on an
equal footing with other organizations. President Bush believes that
besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste tax-payer
dollars and cut off the poor from successful programs” [2].  There are several principles on which the office is founded, but one of interest is the following: “The underlying premise of the President’s Initiative is that a more
open and competitive Federal grant-making process will increase the
delivery of effective social services to those whose needs are
greatest.”

What does the U.S. Constitution have to say about religion? A lot of people throw around the idea of “separation”; however, this word doesn’t appear explicitly in the Constitution. Instead, we must look to the language in Article 6 (Debts, Supremacy, Oaths).

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Of course, there is the most famous language in the first amendment – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

This is where things get gray. Is the OFBCI an instance of “establishment”, or it is, as the President states, a case of removing prohibition by “leveling the playing field”? This is, perhaps, the question that the Court could have addressed had the taxpayers had standing.

From my perspective, having such an office in the President’s own house, so close to the Executive, does smack of establishment. I don’t have a problem with religious organizations offering aid, even if I have noted in my own experience with such organizations that there are spiritual strings attached to that aid. If the President thought the playing field wasn’t level, why not just have an Office of Community Initiatives, dropping “Faith” from the name? If the idea is to just level the playing field, why not make it fair (at least, in name) for all kinds of organizations to do community work, holding all organizations to the same standards and offering no religious test of any kind which determines funding?

One question I had was, “Is a religious test required to apply for funding from OFBCI?” I learned a few things. First, the White House has an OFBCI, but so does Health and Human Services. As of March 2006, the Department of Homeland Security ALSO has an OFBCI. Why three are needed to “level the playing field” is really beyond me. This looks more like a pattern of infection than an concerted centralized effort to level a playing field.

It turns out be be quite hard to answer my question. I can find lots of short paragraphs guiding those unfamiliar with grant programs generally about how to proceed. To find the criteria applied to determine grant award winners, you have to read each grant’s rules. I tried going to some of the grant websites to get info. For instance, I tried to go to the Community Block Grants for HHS, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/csbg/, but it was unavailable. That was the first one I tried. I then tried a State Abstinence Education Program website, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fbci/progs/fbci_saep.html.  It was also unavailable. I then tried the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program website,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/
.  This page also didn’t exist or wasn’t available. I then tried a Child Care and Development fund page,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ccb/geninfo/ccdfdesc.htm
.  UNAVAILABLE.

At that point, I gave up trying. It seems that an honest citizen trying to learn the rules for getting a grant, as recommended by a given OFBCI, is blocked by a complete lack of actual information about the program. This gives me no faith in the Constitutionality of the faith-based programs. I want to give them a fair shake, but it seems like failing to supply information about the rules in a reliable way is a first small step for mis- for dis-information. Is OFBCI leveling the playing field, or creating a special opportunity for those only with ties to religious organizations to get federal money to do work? Is the grant application process a religious test, or not? Will the Supreme Court ever be given a chance to rule on this issue by a party with standing? I have faith, at least, that some of these might be answered.

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/president-initiative.html

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