The Dangers of Bush’s Faith-based Initiative

Last week, President Bush forced all federal agencies to allow religious groups to compete for federal funding. Long prohibited in a nation that prides itself on separation of church and state, government support of religious groups is welcomed by some and condemned by others.

America has not experimented with such programs in the past and has no experience to determine whether the change will be beneficial or become a menace to our democracy. Yet, there is some experience that casts a light on how state support of religious charities will play out.

The report, “The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years: Warning Signs as President Bush Expands Texas-Style Program to National Level,” by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) examines programs begun by Bush when he was governor of Texas.

In 1996, Governor Bush appointed an almost entirely Christian “task force” to guide Texas in eliminating regulations that prevented faith-based providers from receiving government funds. He pushed agencies to open funding to faith-based groups by changing agency policies and contracts and eliminated licensing and inspection requirements for religious charities.

Bipartisan groups supported the legislative and regulatory changes to cut through government red tape because Bush claimed that religious groups achieved worthy results. Texas became the first and most aggressive state in implementing taxpayer-funded religious services.

After five years of such experimentation, Texas discovered many serious flaws.

The Department of Criminal Justice used $1.5 million to fund the Inner Change prison pre-release program, whose purpose was to create respect for “God’s law” and encourage “the spiritual and moral regeneration” of offenders. State funds paid for the program’s Bible-based counseling and Christianity-centered materials. The Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, which regulates childcare providers, children’s homes and child placing agencies, stopped licensing and overseeing faith-based childcare providers. Rates of confirmed abuse and neglect at the faith-based facilities were 25 times higher than at state-licensed facilities. Complaints at these facilities were 75 percent, compared to 5.4 percent at state-licensed facilities. One of Bush’s highly-touted models, Teen Challenge, a Christian-based drug treatment program, had a 49-page list of violations, including no qualified credentialed counselors, no chemical dependency services, illegal handling of medications, and failure to inform clients of their rights. Clients were supposed to pray to get well. Another program, Jobs Partnership, illegally spent $8,000 on bibles, and courts found that protestant evangelical Christianity permeated the job training. The Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization was given $1.5 million for a faith-based teaching structure that incorporated a religious mission that required a “total surrender to Christ.”

The faith-based initiative became a vehicle for fringe religious providers to avoid legitimate state oversight and led to abuse and neglect of people in the programs. Changing the law to accommodate religious groups was a mistake. It eliminated basic health and safety standards, lowered standards of care, failed to provide medical care for physical diseases, and wound up giving preferential treatment to faith-based providers in government contracting.

The program created so many problems that in 2001 the Texas Legislature chose not to renew the state’s accreditation program for faith-based childcare providers. With such a track record in Texas, it’s a wonder that Bush would implement a similar program nationally.

Separation of church and state exists for numerous reasons-one is to give all religions an equal footing-not favoring one over another. Another is to allow individuals to freely accept or reject religion without state mandates. This is why many of our ancestors came to this country.

If people believe that prayer will heal them, either physically or mentally, or they choose Baptist over Catholic or Mormon faiths, they have that right. For the government to fund religions in their enterprise can only lead to undesirable consequen;’ces.

With government funding, religions can compete in earnest, pitting Mormons against Methodists, Catholics against Baptists, Pentecostals against Jews, Islamics against atheists. With the government financially supporting religious programs, we can expect far more religious conflict in public life.

DON MONKERUD is an Aptos, California-based columnist and author who follows politics. He can be reached at: