Debating faith-based programs


President Bush's proposal to expand government support for faith-based charities has set off another round in the perennial debate about church, state, and the place of religion in society—a debate in which both sides are often woefully short on true tolerance.

On the left, there are those who would strip the public square of all vestiges of religion, down to the last creche by City Hall in the smallest town in the United States. Sadly, such a mindset often underlies official policy on religious speech in public schools.

In Oroville, Calif., Chris and Jason Niemeyer, brothers who were high school valedictorians in 1998 and 1999, were barred from giving the customary speech at graduation because they wanted to talk about their faith in Christ. And in a New Jersey case making its way through the federal courts, first-grader Zachary Hood—who, along with other students, was supposed to choose a text for reading aloud in class—was barred from the reading because his selection was from a children's book of Bible stories.

The story, about the reconciliation between the brothers Jacob and Esau, didn't even mention God. Strict separationists, among them some judges, take the baffling position that allowing religious expression in these cases would amount to official endorsement of religion by the school.

Conservatives argue, quite persuasively, that prohibitions on religious speech reflect viewpoint discrimination rather than the neutrality required by the First Amendment. (Imagine the ruckus if a school had forbidden a valedictorian to talk about, say, her passion for environmentalism.) Likewise, one could argue that allowing government agencies to collaborate with secular charities but not with religious ones means actively discriminating against religion.

Opponents of assistance to faith-based groups argue that tax dollars shouldn't be used to support messages to which some taxpayers object. They may have a point, but why should this principle be limited only to religious messages? Thus, many publicly funded domestic violence and rape-crisis programs embrace a radical gender ideology which holds that sexual assault and battering are tools of systematic patriarchal oppression of women and that such oppression permeates male-female relationships in our society—views likely to be objectionable to quite a few tax-paying citizens of both sexes.

Writing in The New York Times Magazine last year, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen noted that recently the courts have been moving away from strict separationism toward equal treatment for religion. This means that state universities can fund religious student publications on a par with nonreligious ones, and parochial and secular schools alike can receive federal aid for special education. (Until 1997, federally mandated remedial classes taught by public school teachers to parochial school students had to be held in vans off school property. Can the Constitution require something so absurd?) Under this doctrine, the government can subcontract services such as homeless shelters or drug counseling to religious organizations, among others, without violating the Constitution. Surely, this is consistent with the principle of religious pluralism that champions of church-state separation endorse.

Meanwhile, on the right, there are those who want religion to be protected from criticism or vigorous challenge. In other words, they don't want it to be treated like any other viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas. Some defenders of liberty for believers can get unhappy about the wrong kind of expression about religion. Ironically, their attempts to squelch blasphemy are often couched in the politically correct language of antibigotry.

In a current controversy over a Brooklyn Art Museum exhibit featuring a work depicting a nude black woman as Christ at the Last Supper, William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, has used the phrase "hate crime."

The charge of Christian-bashing had been directed a few years ago at the now-defunct television series "Nothing Sacred," which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy. Just as some liberals think religious speech should be banned from the public sphere because it may make nonbelievers uncomfortable, some conservatives think antireligious speech should not be allowed to offend believers' sensibilities.

But being exposed to discomforting or offensive ideas is the price of freedom. Religious diversity, like sexual or racial diversity, should not become a mandate for suppressing speech.

As for coordinated government support for faith-based social programs, I don't think this idea will endanger the republic. But it would be far better to minimize government involvement altogether, perhaps by expanding tax deductions for charitable donations. Then, individuals, rather than the government, would get to decide which philanthropies and which ideas are worthy of support.