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Religious indoctrination dressed up as social welfare


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

This message is to anyone who thinks that the separation of church and state is a vital component of American liberty: Wake up and start hollering. Our president is conducting a full frontal assault on this vital right, and few beyond a handful of civil liberties groups are paying any mind.

During the State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to approve $600-million over three years for drug and alcohol treatment. Noble as this may seem, Bush is turning the effort into a way to divert public dollars to religious groups.

His invited guests for the speech were Tonja Myles of the "Set Free Indeed Program" at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., and Henry Lozano of Teen Challenge California. Bush, who wears his religion not only on his sleeve but as a very loud tie, held up the "Set Free Indeed" program as a model, calling its work "amazing." He was telling America that this is the type of program we should be pouring federal dollars into.

But if you look at the program's Web site, you'll see that the services provided are, well, "services." "We believe that recovery begins at the Cross," says the group's mission statement. "We rely solely on the foundation of the Word of God to break the bands of addiction." So much for professional treatment protocols.

Similarly preachy providers are found at Teen Challenge, one of Bush's favorite drug abuse programs. This is the outfit that told Congress in May 2001 it hires only Christians. In his congressional testimony, John Castellani, president of Teen Challenge International, boasted that some Jewish participants come out the other side as "completed Jews," missionary parlance for having been converted to Christianity. "A personal relationship with Jesus Christ permeates everything we do," says Castellani on his organization's Web site.

This is religious indoctrination dressed up to look like social welfare.

That is not to say religion isn't a valid option for people looking for help. Certainly for some, turning to faith can help break an addiction. But government should have no role in funding conversions and born-again epiphanies. Our pluralistic nation remains free of religious strife because the Constitution prevents government from underwriting faith. At a time when we are in a veritable holy war with certain extremist elements within Islam, do we really want to toy with this proven formula for internal peace?

None of this matters to Bush, who credits faith with helping him overcome his own problems with alcohol. The only interest he has in the Establishment Clause is in finding ways around it. Even without the support of Congress, Bush has single-mindedly pursued his faith-based agenda. There are now seven federal agency offices -- all established by Bush -- devoted to redirecting tax money into the coffers of religious institutions.

In addition, Bush has been laying the groundwork for more entanglement. He has given faith-based providers the ability to refuse to hire employees who don't pass a religious test -- call it federally financed religious discrimination. And he has opened the door for federal housing money to be used to build churches, synagogues and mosques, as long as some of the structure is used for secular purposes.

All this destruction to the wall between church and state, and the public has barely raised an eyebrow.

Emboldened, Bush is now pressing Congress to fund his multiyear, $600-million drug abuse program with a twist: The money would be handed out in the form of vouchers.

Yes, vouchers -- the mantra of the Religious Right relative to schools, will now be expanded to include social welfare. That way programs slathered in religiosity, such as Teen Challenge and Set Free Indeed, can feed at the federal trough without having to secularize.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a Cleveland program giving vouchers to parents to send their children to parochial school was constitutional, the door has been open for this type of expansion. And it was just a matter of time before Bush drove his holy-rollin' Hummer through it.

Beyond the folly of giving drunks and drug addicts federal vouchers -- might the corner liquor store open up a counseling business on the side? -- this attempt to obliterate church-state separation demonstrates our president has no appreciation of history -- either this nation's or the world's.

Someone needs to hand him James Madison's Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, the founding father's 1785 polemic against a bill in the Virginia legislature for a general assessment to fund teachers of religion. Madison's eloquent appeal reminded the body that "torrents of blood" have spilled when government entangles itself with religion, and the bill was tabled. Bush is too blind to see the dangerous road he's driving us down. Only noise from a concerned public will make him stop.

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