WASHINGTON – While President Bush’s plan to boost church-based involvement in federally funded social services programs brought a cautious response from Maryland religious organizations last week, it drew fire from civil rights groups.
“It is not discriminating against religious groups to say they shouldn’t get government funding,” said Susan Goering of Maryland’s American Civil Liberties Union.
“I think there’s alarm among the civil rights community partly because this is a man who’s been very open about his faith, which is fine, but he’s also coupled that with some policies,” Goering said. “This is not someone who’s been an advocate of the separation of church and state.”
But many faith-based service providers and policy analysts around the state say these concerns may be overblown. They have been partnering with government successfully for years, they say, without First Amendment violations.
“We don’t see a necessary connection between the service that we render in our agencies and the faith we follow,” said Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“We’re faith-based and Gospel-driven and you can render service in a way that doesn’t require the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary in the middle of it,” he said.
Richard Reichard, executive director of the National Lutheran Home in Rockville agrees.
“We’re very accustomed to government. We call it the friendly handshake,” he said. “I don’t believe that anyone should drive religion down anyone else’s throats, but most of us don’t do that.”
Many of those already involved in social service say that Bush’s plan will not influence how they run their programs. They said they are accustomed to separating their faith from their services.
“At Catholic Charities we are very aware of where the line is drawn and we serve anyone who comes us, regardless of race, creed, religion,” said Linda Meade, of Maryland Catholic Charities. “We don’t press our faith on anyone. We already fit the parameters.”
But even some faith-based policy analysts have First Amendment concerns with Bush’s proposal to make them more actively involved in government-funded programs.
“I regard it personally as something that maybe could work, but only with the greatest safeguards,” said Beryl Smith, a lobbyist with the Presbytery of Baltimore. “We sort of look at it as a minefield around which we need to be very careful and the government needs to be very careful.
“It used to be that you were protecting government from church and the next moment you’re protecting church from government. It flows both ways,” Smith said.
Some groups would like to see that flow stopped entirely. People for the American Way said in a prepared statement on its website that Bush’s plan “puts church and state on a direct collision course.”
Goering said it would also be wrong to assume that religious groups will automatically do a better job than a government or secular agency.
“Now nobody’s going to deny that there may be a spiritual component to solving the drug problem. . .but the question really is, what can the average citizen expect if they need government services like drug treatment?” she said. “It’s a medical problem, they should be able to get medical services.”
But Marilyn Aklin, executive director of Payne Memorial Outreach in Baltimore, has strong words for those she calls the “church-state separatists” who would keep churches out of government-sponsored social services entirely.
“I drive through the streets of Baltimore and I see the pain, and I see people dying. . .this is a war. Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Aklin said. “A drowning man will take a life raft from anybody. And that life raft might have the Red Cross or the Star of David on it,” she said.