In February of 2008, Americans United’s Legal Department sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General’s office and three other cabinet-level officials expressing our concerns about a list of congressionally approved “earmarks” for religious organizations, including 13 that were to be paid through the U.S. Department of Justice.
We knew it would be tough going to convince the Bush administration to discontinue tax funding of religious organizations – and indeed the administration insisted there was no problem and funded all 13 Justice Department grants.
When Barack Obama assumed office in January, we hoped for a better outcome. Our attorneys had done additional investigating in the interim and determined that nine of the Justice Department earmarks were the most constitutionally problematic. We asked Attorney General Eric Holder to discontinue five of them and either modify the other four to meet constitutional requirements or end them as well.
Americans United awaits word on the administration’s decision.
The five challenged grants are going to organizations that talk openly about the proselytizing in their programs. For example, $47,000 went to Albany Teen Challenge of New York to run a program called “Rock the Block,” during which the “word of God is shared,” “[a]n altar call is given, Bibles are provided, and salvation cards are distributed.”
Albany Teen Challenge hires only Christians who agree with the organization’s fundamentalist outlook.
Grants like this are more evidence that the “faith-based” initiative is still crying out for reform. As a candidate, Obama vowed to fix the initiative and clean up its most striking flaws. He said he would bar tax funding to groups that proselytize and engage in hiring discrimination on the basis of religion.
Unfortunately, Obama has since stepped away from that pledge. In its place, he has substituted vague talk about the Justice Department reviewing matters on a case-by-case basis.
That is far from adequate. Obama should have stuck with his original plan and discontinued public aid to groups that seek to convert others and deny jobs to people for being the “wrong” religion.
The administration may be hoping that this issue will simply go away, but that’s not going to happen. As long as tax money is flowing to religious groups that use it to promote their faith, AU will keep blowing the whistle.
It would be best if the administration did the right thing and adopted regulations to end these constitutional violations. At the very least, the attorney general’s office should signal that it takes this matter seriously by terminating the most egregious grants that AU has identified.