Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques"

How about social workers overloaded with welfare cases, police, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, emergency response people responding to all sorts of disasters and food shelf volunteers? I would say these people are closer to the people because they assist based on need, regardless of which congressional district you are from, your sexual orientation, race, or religion. They do not seek to change your views on theology or religion, but seek to keep you safe, healthy, and your rights protected.

Senator Obama, riding high on a swing back to the Democratic leanings for the nation in response to years of Republican dominated governing, made a speech on July 1 which angered many an atheist.

First, some background. While atheists are not alone in their support for the separation of church and state, some Baptist groups strongly support separation as well, they are the most vocal. This often leads people to believe that separation of church and state is anti-religious, or proposes to remove all elements of religion from the country by the secular left. Perhaps atheist organizations, and the people which make up their membership, are more sensitive to issues concerning the entanglement of religion and government. I can see how one's point of view would be different if attending a liberal congregation which prides itself in responsible use of Federal money to fund secular projects to help the community. If that were the case, Faith-Based Initiatives would be seen as a good thing. It was started by President Clinton, after all.

As with most things, without stronger oversight, and control, abuse becomes rampant. Let's say you're the Salvation Army, and you are receiving Federal money to fund a program, and you're busy hiring staff. Let's say one of your prospective staff, interviewing for a Psychologist position is Jewish and you find out during the interview, and refuse to hire based on his religion. That's discrimination. However, courts have upheld the rights of religious groups to discriminate. But, when you're being funded by the public, you need to play by the public's rules.

Not For Profit Organizations are required to keep report on income, while religious groups do not. Without this transparency, that $200,000 grant to fund school presentations on the dangers of drugs could become attractive when the roof leaks in the church's gym. Since there is no oversight of accounting, that temptation can be quite strong, after all, it's all in the service of God? Right? To atheists, it is serious, and exposes the problem which arise when government and religion become entangled.

Currently, programs for Faith-Based Initiatives are not evaluated for effectiveness. What this means, is that Federal money which would go to the Boys and Girls Clubs would go to a church run camp, even one run by Pat Robertson's church. This is also a concern when states choose to fund abstinence only religious based sex education over comprehensive reason based sex education, without looking at the dangers of not providing students with education which can help prevent the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancy.

Senator Obama has spoken strongly about the separation of church and state. I think ending discrimination in hiring practices, and providing better controls and oversight are better then not. However, before Charitable Choice and Faith-Based Initiates, religious groups and secular groups were on an even playing field, able to compete fairly for the same grants. Now there is a bias towards supporting Christian organizations over others, and both parties are guilty of throwing money at overtly religious programs and churches which use money to proselytize unwilling recipients of programs, discriminate based on religion, sex, and sexual orientation, and may not provide better services then secular counterparts.

Reform is good, but others are not satisfied. Americans United, and the Secular Coalition of America both have positions that the Faith-Based Initiatives program be ended by the next President, as the program is created by the Executive branch. The concern is that a religious group, such as a church, would receive funding for a program, which may be secular, however, allows the church to spend it's budget on religious activities, rather then on the secular program. Providing charitable works can increase visibility of the organization, and potentially increase membership and donation to the church, and can be viewed as endorsing a particular religion by funding an important part of the organization.

I'm in the middle on this issue. I do like the reforms, but I do not like the bias towards religious groups as being inherently good and ethical. I think that Federal money should be given to programs which seek to help the public in a nondiscriminatory way, but I don't see a need to allow religious groups to participate in Federal programs while maintaining the religious nature in their services. While there are abuses of the current system, especially in supporting religious organizations in certain districts for political purposes, most of the recipients are not abusing the program, and are using money responsibly, and within the law.

Should the program be scrapped. I think so. I don't think there is a good reason for it. If a religious organization doesn't have the funds to run a charitable operation, why should I fund it? Is it my fault they can't get enough donations to be self sufficient? Maybe they need to work on marketing themselves better, or the charitable organization needs to be separate and secular in purpose and operation. This is keeping in mind that secular does not mean anti-religion, but neutral to religion.


As Mr. Metha reports, atheist groups have been weighing in on the issue since yesterday when the speech happened. Some have been very harsh, others pleased that the Religious Right isn't happy about church's having to allow atheists to be hired. The tone has softened a bit since the Fox News article about expanding Faith-Based Initiatives was released, because some groups see the move as rather clever. It's a way to appear supportive of the program, while introducing elements which seek to keep the separation of church and state present.

I do agree with the position of the Secular Coalition of America:
Direct federal funding of houses of worship, regardless of how the funds are used, is a violation of the separation of church and state.
But, Constitution, Somstitution, right? It's just written on paper, and paper can be erased, right?

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