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By Jeremy Reynalds
According to the Associated Press, John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community plans to leave his post as soon as a transition team is formed.
According to media accounts, as he announced his departure, DiIulio, a Democrat and an academic, touted a report he put together as a major accomplishment of his short tenure. The report released Thursday assessed the barriers faced by religious groups in applying for federal funding.
The White House report argues that federal officials routinely discriminate against faith based groups when allotting government grants and that in so doing they take the separation of church and state too far.
In the report, the White House argues that federal officials already have everything in place that they need to give to faith based organizations but they still act as if they do not.
"It is not Congress but these overly restrictive agency rules that repressive, restrictive and which actively undermine the established civil rights of these groups," the report concludes.
However, that assertion is a matter of much debate and far from settled. The faith-based initiative has been blasted by both conservatives and liberals alike, who oppose, but for different reasons, the funding of federal dollars to faith-based ministries..
Liberals such as Barry Lynn of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State hate the plan, concerned that successful passage of the initiative would end up being a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Lynn had tough words to say in a press release available on the organization's web site. He said that the report "misreads" Supreme Court decisions on church and state and could result in a lawsuit if it is "recklessly implemented. "If the Bush administration tries to change federal regulations and fund religion, we will immediately file suit in federal court," said Lynn. "When Bush talks about removing barriers' to funding religion, it's clear he wants to bulldoze the wall that separates church and state. Taxpayers must never be forced to support religions they don't believe in."
Lynn added that he doesn't blame DiIulio for leaving, "but I wish he'd take the faith-based initiative with him."
Conservatives like myself and others are concerned that government funding would lead to a watering down of the gospel message that makes faith based ministries so effective. And apparently with good reason. During negotiations over the legislation, DiIulio agreed that religious groups that preach or try to convert people should not be eligible for direct government grants.
Media reports have pointed out that DiIulio is leaving at a vital time for the faith based initiative. Although it passed the House recently with a 233-198 vote it faces a rocky road in the Senate where it has yet to find a Democratic sponsor.
As founder and executive director of New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter (and speaking personally, a conservative social and fiscal Republican as well as a Bush supporter), I am nonetheless totally opposed to the plan.
Even though according to media reports Bush told some religious leaders in a private meeting recently in Albuquerque that his plan is entirely voluntary, so "if it doesn't perform you don't need to be a part of the system," there is nonetheless a real temptation for struggling faith based ministries to back the initiative and take government funds, all the while believing that they would be able to continue preaching the gospel without any interference.
That, my friend, just isn't going to happen. As I explained in a previous article, let me reiterate yet again why it's time for the President's plan to die and why it is risky business for the very organizations it purports to help.
To show you how bad it is, let me explain by using some of the points made by the liberal Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; a group with which I have many serious points of contention.
Just in case you'd never heard of them before, Americans United (AU) is according to the group's web site, " a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization (claims to) represents 70,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states."
When the initiative passed the House, the AU immediately threatened a lawsuit, saying "This bill joins church and state in unholy matrimony," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "If the Bush initiative becomes law, we'll go to court and file for divorce."
And as I mentioned above but it is so important that it is important to reiterate the point here that as part of the negotiations over the legislation, faith-based groups will be unable to require religious activities in their programs if they receive government funding. That, folks, is what the very essence of a faith-based ministry is all about.
Those of us who run faith-based ministries are not social reformers or agency heads, we are ministry leaders with a divine calling who believe that proclaiming the life changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodies the very essence of who we are and what we do.
For those of you who maybe question the accuracy of my information, this issue was issue was brought before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on June 7, where a Justice Department attorney representing the White House was asked if a faith-based group would be allowed to take funds under the Bush plan and still hold religious activities? According to a report on the AU web site, the attorney s answer was "no."
This appeared to be a real about-face for the Bush administration, but an inevitable one nonetheless. Allowing Christian faith based groups to receive government funding and continue with their religious programs seemed a great way to generate lawsuits, if not from individual clients being assisted by the faith based groups, most certainly from organizations such as Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Not surprisingly, back in June Lynn was quick to comment on the Bush administration's apparent flip flop, calling it "a major departure from the Bush administration's past stance (and one that means the White House) "is either in full retreat or complete disarray ... In the past, the president and his allies have insisted that religious groups get funding without sacrificing their religious character. Now Bush's people seem to be saying religious groups must drop all religious activity if they get public funds. Which is it?"
Good question; which indeed? If the legislative uncertainty wasn't enough of a good reason for turning down government monies, here's another good reason. Lynn correctly observes that faith based ministries opting for government funding are in effect providing an open invitation for the government to regulate their religion. That's because the government is obligated to regulate everything that it funds.
As Lynn commented, "Once churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are being financed by the public, some of their freedom will be placed in jeopardy by the almost certain regulation to follow. Houses of worship that have flourished as private institutions may suddenly have their books audited or face regular spot checks by federal inspectors in order to ensure appropriate accountability.'"
Faith based "ministries" desiring federal intrusion should go ahead and take government funding. The faith-based element of their program will quickly become as extinct as the dinosaur. Those wanting to maintain and even increase their faith- based distinctive might consider doing what we have done and are continuing to do at Joy Junction.
Firstly, we have never taken and have no plans to ever take government funding or do anything that might jeopardize the evangelical Christian underpinning upon which Joy Junction is built.
Secondarily, we are beginning to turn away any offers of volunteer help for our guests that are opposed to our Christian philosophy. Some of you may recall, a few months ago we turned down an approximately $1200.00 gift that was raised by a gay group that decided to stage a drag show. While we exist to help the homeless, we do in conformity with basic Christian principles. We felt that such activities undermined the very essence of our existence.
Soon after, we changed the on-site medical providers for our guests at Joy Junction, from a group that while offering excellent medical care held viewpoints that were incompatible with ours, to a volunteer doctor and his team that minister spiritually while they are assisting medically.
Additionally, while the local school district offers an excellent after school tutoring program for homeless kids, it is based upon secular humanistic philosophy and sometimes espouses viewpoints that are incompatible with evangelical Christianity. As soon as enough qualified individuals of our faith persuasion come forward, we will move from the secular program to one that embraces an evangelical perspective.
And so the list goes on. Our philosophy will be that we want to provide the very best care and assistance for our guests. There will always be shelter, food and Bible study. Also included amongst a variety of other important skills being taught might be maintenance, computer skills, resume writing, lessons in how to balance a check and dressing for success.
But emphasized in the teaching as the foundational building block upon which all of these skills should be based will be the necessity of having a relationship with Jesus Christ. At Joy Junction (along with President Bush) we believe that faith expressed in both word and action is the most important key toward getting back on one's feet again. Those faith-based ministries electing to take government funding will have to decide whether they still believe that.
Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be viewed here and weekly at www.americasvoices.org. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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