Sunday, February 8, 2009

Faith-Based Organizations and Community Services

On Thursday, February 05, 2009, President Obama announced the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships which is an expansion of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that former President G.W. Bush created back on Jan 29, 2001 with an executive order. While I have been impressed and agreed strongly with the judgment and directions of candidate and now President Obama, I believe this is a bad decision and more a political move to appease religious-political organizations and leaders; the term “Faith-Based” in the title says it all. By the way, for all intents and purposes, you can equate faith-based to religious organization although strictly speaking the term faith is a broader term than religion.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not against religion. There is no doubt that religion is a significant and often a natural and necessary part of civilized societies. However it is not the only way to establish and maintain morals and ethics as clearly demonstrated by e.g. Confucianism. I am not against religious organizations engaging in community services either. There is no doubt that many religious organizations in U.S. and regions across the world (and in some places the only organizations) have done great services for communities and people, especially those in needs, with or without government funding. There is no doubt that organized religious groups are often a part of the ‘first responders” to such social services needs.

I do however disagree on having government give yours and my tax dollars to advance or disadvantage any religious organizations. I strongly believe that we must abide by the principle of “Separation of Church and State” of the First Amendment. We must examine and debate rigorously the reasons and ways for religious organizations to receive and utilize public funds on top of their tax-exempted status.

The press coverage and discussions has mostly been focused on if and when President Obama will fulfill his campaign pledge to rescind Bush’s executive order that allows religious organizations to receive federal dollars for providing social services employing only those who subscribe to their beliefs.

There are a lot of familiar and repeating arguments. One justification has been the reach that I don’t disagree. Another is efficiency. However if efficiency is important (and it is), it seems odd that we don’t address it head-on but instead delegate services to religious organizations. Aren’t we, by doing so, shy away from our serious obligations in exchange for some convenience? There are many ways to fix the efficiency problem without involving religious organizations; this is just a lousy excuse.

If we look further, the issue is much deeper and pre-dates Bush’s presidency. Historically, religious groups have been given tax dollars for providing social services as long as they abide by rules such as not to discriminate against their employees (that Bush’s executive order had removed!), not to use government fund for religious event, and not to have services at the same room and time. Isn’t this rather degrading? How could religious organizations be compared to and treated exactly like other government contractors that create and sell commercial goods and services?

Further, like what we have learned in the current economic crisis about the use of government bailout money by financial institutions that receive aids, how do we know the money did not support indirectly for religious activities? After all, a dollar is a dollar regardless where it comes from. There ought to be equivalent resources that are freed up by the government funds for the community services and that are now available and used for religious services.

I am not advocating disallowing religious organizations to provide social services. But we do need to install proper firewall to insure tax dollars for social services are strictly and exclusively used for the services. The basic solution is pretty straightforward and has been widely used in business when there is a potential of conflict of interest. For religious organization which would like to provide such services, they can simply set up a separate subsidiary with its own independent board, management and mission. I can’t think of any good reasons that religious leaders would be against such a rule unless their primary goal is not in providing the services to help the poor and needy.

TheocracyWatch had called those Bush administration’s actions “transformation from a secular to a religious government”. It is simply wrong and unconstitutional to use tax money to advance religious causes. It is not too late for President Obama and his administration to find enough wisdom and courage to change course and reverse those policies. After all, this is the president who is clearly well aware of the traps; he himself had said in April 2008 during his campaign that, “people suffering economically… get bitter, cling to guns or religion or … as a way to explain their frustrations”.

Talk to you soon!

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