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    A Times Editorial

    More church-state entanglement


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 11, 2003

    One of President Bush's domestic priorities is shifting tax dollars from secular social service organizations to faith-based groups. He has used his executive powers to create a special office in seven federal agencies to encourage and promote the flow of federal money to religiously affiliated organizations working in welfare-to-work programs, drug addiction recovery and other social programs. In pressing ahead, Bush has brushed aside questions about church-state entanglement.

    The administration's latest move is a decision to allow religious organizations to use federal housing funds to construct or renovate houses of worship as long as part of the structure will be used for social services. The administration claims it is merely leveling the playing field to allow religiously affiliated providers to compete for the same government benefits available to other public service groups. But what the president seems to have forgotten is the First Amendment, which bars the government from using its taxing power to support religion.

    The president has shown little regard for this principle. He clearly wants government to subsidize religion to an extent not seen in this country since the formation of the union. Late last year he defied the will of Congress and unilaterally gave faith-based programs the ability to choose employees on the basis of a religious test and still qualify for federal funds.

    The administration's newest funding proposal will open grant money offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to religious groups for bricks and mortar projects. Last year, federal housing and community development funds totaled $7.7-billion. Under Bush's order, religious organizations can apply for these funds to acquire, build or renovate buildings even if the bulk of the structure is used for religious devotion. These mixed-use facilities could receive tax dollars for the proportion of the structure intended to be used for social programs. HUD officials give the example of a church that operates a counseling center in the basement. The cost of building the church's basement could be covered by government funds.

    How will government ensure that spaces created with tax money won't be used for religious activities? As Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., glibly asked in the New York Times: "Are we going to start sending the inspector general to charge people with committing a bar mitzvah?"

    And who will receive this money? Will Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Wiccans be equally eligible along with mainline churches? Or will the government find a way to avoid helping disfavored groups with construction costs?

    In great part, the First Amendment's religion clause was inserted to protect religion from too much entanglement with, hence control by, the state. By accepting federal money to construct buildings that are part church and part state, the religious community will be inviting Caesar to make judgments that should not be his.

    This is a disturbing expansion in what is already a constitutionally suspect faith-based initiative program. If Congress doesn't address the issue, the courts should.

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