Faith-Based Fake Out

'Stealth' Voucher Provision, Other Loopholes Will Let Publicly Funded Religious Groups Proselytize, Bush Team Tells Religious Right

According to a report in an evangelical news magazine, White House officials have assured conservative Christians that loopholes in the "faith-based initiative" would let religious groups proselytize while receiving public funds.

According to a World magazine article written by Marvin Olasky (a former Bush adviser who coined the term "compassionate conservatism"), a "TeamBush insider" insists that "biblical and secular teaching could be interwoven [in publicly funded programs], 'as long as you do it right and keep separate books.'"

A White House source told World that Department of Justice senior counsel Carl Esbeck "is a master at writing vague language" and that H.R. 7, the faith-based bill, would permit proselytism, despite the appearance of tight restrictions against religious pressure.

According to Olasky's article, "The executive said that a homeless shelter that had, say, a short sermon after dinner could still have it by offering those who came a choice between writing a paper after dinner or listening to the message. 'They'll come to the sermon but it's been voluntary, because you've given them an option,' he said."

This revelation is in stark conflict with Esbeck's testimony earlier this year to the House Judiciary Committee on religiosity in publicly funded programs. On June 7, Esbeck was asked if religious organizations would be allowed to take money under the "faith-based initiative" and still sponsor religious activity. Esbeck said, "No." He added, "During the government-funded program there should not be worship or sectarian activity or proselytizing."

While Olasky notes that some congressional critics of the Bush plan were pleased with safeguards included in H.R. 7 that appeared to prohibit religious coercion in publicly funded programs, White House staffers explained that these opponents were merely fooled by the administration's strategy.

As Olasky explained, "For example, say a church sets up a government-funded program, 'Fight Poverty, Inc.,' that teaches biblical principles using secular language. Someone from the church may pass out free Bibles before class, 'and if someone asks a question about a principle, the instructor can go to the Bible,' because he's responding to participant interest. The instructor can also announce that the church will offer personal counseling or individual help after class."

Religious Right allies of the White House seem satisfied that the loopholes are wide enough. The Traditional Values Coalition's Lou Sheldon, for example, told World that the legislation will work for groups that want to proselytize with public funds, and that "all it takes is a little bit of creativity."

The World report also notes that H.R. 7's voucher provisions, which garnered far less attention than debates over direct grants to ministries, have been critically important in demonstrating the opportunities for evangelism with public funds. An "executive close to the White House" told Olasky that the fight over proselytism restrictions on direct grants is "all a show" to distract the attention of the news media and congressional critics.

According to Olasky, the Bush operative said, "'We kick and scream. We don't roll over too easy on language, or else they'll think it's what you wanted.' What's truly important in the legislation, he said, is a 'stealth provision' about vouchers: 'Let people argue over grants, but get the vouchers passed.'"

This, too, appears to please White House allies in the Religious Right.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told World, "Voucherization is almost like a magic wand that deals with almost all the thorny church-state problems."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, charged the White House with "scandalous duplicity."

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United's executive director, "Bush administration officials are intentionally running a campaign of deception to get the faith-based initiative through Congress. If administration officials have to stoop to these kinds of tactics to get this scheme through, they have truly lost their moral and ethical compass. I hope moderate senators will reject any such deals with the devil if they take up the faith-based proposal."