A recent decision from the California Supreme Court illustrates a hidden side effect of the so-called "faith-based" initiative.
The California affiliate of Catholic Charities has become one of the largest providers of social services in the state. The organization hires many non-Catholics and provides its services to those in need without trying to convert anyone to Catholicism.
California law requires private employer health-care plans to include coverage for birth control drugs if other prescription drug benefits are offered. Exemptions are made for religious employers who object to artificial contraception on doctrinal grounds.
Catholic Charities tried to claim this exemption but was denied. The organization, the California high court ruled 6-1, isn't a religious employer. As evidence, the court cited the large number of non-Catholics employed by the charity, the non-Catholics it serves and its "no proselytism" approach.
The court did not mention another fact that seems salient to us: In California, Catholic Charities receives 50 percent of its budget from government sources that is, the taxpayers. (That figure is even higher in other states, reaching 75 percent in New York, for example.)
Catholic Charities has essentially become a ward of the state. It has grown dependent on tax aid and, in fact, could not provide the level of services it offers without an annual infusion of money courtesy of the taxpayer.
Religious organizations are free to enter into these arrangements with the government. But they should think long and hard before doing so. Common sense should tell religious leaders that when they choose to accept Caesar's coin, they are also accepting Caesar's regulations.
President George W. Bush, "Faith Czar" James Towey and other boosters of the misguided faith-based initiative continue to tell religious leaders that they can have it all. Bush and Towey say houses of worship can get millions in taxpayer money and not have to water down their religiosity. Well, say Bush and Towey, it's true you won't be allowed to proselytize, but other than that, be as religious as you want to be.
Is that approach going to work? Is it going to protect the integrity of religious organizations in the long run and allow for church autonomy? Is contracting with the state and taking Caesar's coin worth it?
Religious leaders wondering about those questions should talk not to Bush and Towey but to the leaders of Catholic Charities in California. They know more than a little about the subject.