Priorities for the Next President: Make Way for Faith-Based Alternatives

Posted on Categories Religion & Law

I tend to be supportive of faith-based alternatives in state funded social programs and education for a variety of reasons. For better or worse, we live in a time and place in which most such services are going to be publicly funded. To exclude faith based approaches is to eliminate a set of approaches that might be quite effective and sends a message about the propriety of faith-based perspectives in the public square.

Such approaches must be carefully designed to avoid compulsion and to ensure the availability of secular alternatives. But government should also avoid the temptation to remake faith-based approaches in its own image. I am opposed, therefore, to the expansion of federal and local civil rights laws to the extent it interferes with the ability of faith-based organizations to hire for mission, i.e., to prefer hires who share the group’s religious presuppositions.

A move to include faith-based approaches to education and social services necessarily implies a philosophical diversity and the facilitation of intermediary institutions that may not share all of the state’s preferred values. This may require staying the hand of the state in defining just what faith-based programs ought to entail. If, for example, there are other adoption agencies in Massachusetts who would provide service to same-sex couples, it is unclear to me why we ought to insist that Catholic Charities abandon Roman Catholic doctrine and do the same, even if that doctrine is contrary to state policy.

Nor do I believe that the IRS, in the guise of policing restrictions on tax exempt organizations, ought to strictly manage the “political” content of speech by religious organizations. Putting aside the full panopoly of issues raised by the recent “Pulpit Sunday” sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, it is one thing to prohibit direct electioneering and another to restrict speech thought to have “too much” political content. I have in mind the move of the IRS against All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. During the 2004 election, the preacher, while explicitly disavowing the endorsement of either candidate, imagined a conversation between Jesus Christ, John Kerry, and George W. Bush on the Iraq War. The content of the sermon was such as to suggest that Jesus would not be voting Republican.

The IRS ultimately declared that the church had broken the law, although it did not, in the end, move to rescind its tax exemption. I think that was mistaken. The IRS ought not to presume that it can distinguish between what it religious and what is political.

So my hope is that the next President will show support for, but exercise a light hand toward faith-based service providers and tax-exempt religious organizations.

3 thoughts on “Priorities for the Next President: Make Way for Faith-Based Alternatives”

  1. Regarding Catholic Charities and their state-funded work to recruit adoptive families for children in foster care – the real issue is the best interest of the child. When the state contracts with a private agency to serve as the adoption social worker for a particular child, no other agency is simultaneously working on behalf of that child. If the agency is unwilling to consider a certain group of potential parents for that child, without regard to the specific needs of the child, it is the child who suffers further. Children in foster care with the goal of adoption have frequently been abused by a family-member. Many abuse-victims, especially children, are anxious and fearful in the presence of people who remind them of their abuser. Why should a little girl, traumatized by an adult male, be forced to remain in foster care, or be adopted by a single woman, when there are lesbian couples who are ready, willing and able to help the child overcome her past traumas in a safe and unthreatening home? Why should the religious doctrine of the agency be a higher priority than the best interests of the child? I hope that explains why a faith-based approach to adoption is not not appropriate – we’re talking about services to the child, and determining, without bias, who can best help that child thrive and overcome an unfortunate past.

  2. Thank to Ms. Halpern for her thoughtful comments. I remain unpersuaded. Catholic Charities would presumably deny the premise of her hypothetical, i.e., that placement with a lesbian couple would, in this case, be preferable. I am not convinced that the state needs to permit only one answer to that question, particularly if it comes at the cost of excluding or disfavoring religious institutions whose contributions have been historically and are currently available in a number of contexts.

  3. The Catholic Church hierarchy may deny the premise, but a) it is not hypothetical, and b) Catholic Charity’s front-line social workers had, upon occasion, quietly placed children for adoption with gay couples. When new Archibishop Sean O’Malley learned that fact, he then made the public pronouncement stopping the practice, and sought an exemption from state anti-discrimination laws. But these placements were made by experienced social workers, based on the best interests of each child. I agree that the state does not need to permit only one answer; there are many ways to meet a child’s needs. Likewise, the state should not exclude an answer for any child. In Massachusetts alone, over 600 youth “age out” of foster care annually without ever finding a permanent, nurturing adoptive family. Surely a “good enough” family is better than letting these youngsters age out to the streets because an “ideal family” did not step forward.

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