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Non-Christians need not apply

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published August 13, 2006


Thanks to President Bush and his plan to Christianize the nation's provision of social services, one's relationship with Jesus Christ has become a real resume booster. As author Michelle Goldberg reports in her new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Bush has ushered in affirmative action for the born- again.

In 2005 alone, more than $2-billion in federal tax money went to faith-based programs for such services as job placement programs, addiction treatment and child mentoring. Overwhelmingly, this money went to groups affiliated with Christian religions.

This reallocation of social service money from secular agencies to religiously affiliated programs has also resulted in shifting employment opportunities. But some of these new employers have a shocking job requirement - only Christians need apply.

Goldberg cited the publicly funded Firm Foundation of Bradford, Pa., as a blatant example. The group provides prison inmates with job training, something one would think any trained professional could do. Well, think again. According to Goldberg, the group posted an ad for a site manager. It said that the applicant must be "a believer in Christ and Christian Life today, sharing these ideals when the opportunity arises." Apparently, experience and qualifications are secondary.

Transforming social welfare into conversion therapy was Bush's design when he made faith-based initiatives the priority of his administration's domestic agenda. And his success has been astounding.

Before Bush upended things, religious groups had always been enlisted by government as providers of social services. They just had to wholly separate their religious mission from their government-funded services. Under Bush, there has been substantial blurring of the line.

As to hiring, the law always allowed religious groups to discriminate on religious grounds - so that the Catholic Church could hire Catholic priests, for example - but that exemption did not extend to employees hired with public funds to provide social welfare. It was a simple, clear rule. If you took public money, you hired on the basis of merit, not piety.

But Bush wiped away this calibrated distinction by issuing a series of executive orders early in his presidency approving taxpayer financed religious discrimination.

Some of the resulting collateral damage has been tragic. Just talk to Anne Lown. She worked for 24 years for the Salvation Army in New York City before resigning due to the hostility she felt toward her non-Christian beliefs. The office she ran had hundreds of employees with an annual budget of $50-million, almost all of which came from public sources. Lown oversaw foster care placements, day care services, residential services for the developmentally disabled and many other programs.

In Lown's experience, the Salvation Army had always in the past been meticulous about keeping its evangelical side from mingling with its provision of social services, but all that changed in 2003. She attributes the change directly to Bush's policies. A lawsuit filed by Lown and another 17 current and former employees of the Salvation Army alleges that religion suddenly pervaded the agency's personnel decisions.

Lown says she was handed a form that all employees were expected to complete, asking for list of churches she attended over the last 10 years and the name of her present minister. Lown says she was told that indicating "not applicable" was not an option. A lawyer for the Salvation Army says the form was modified after complaints were received.

But Lown said that atmosphere was fear-inducing for the professional staff.

She pointed to a mission statement that all employees were required to support as a condition of employment. It stated that the organization's mission "is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Margaret Geissman, who is also part of the lawsuit, claims that she was asked by a supervisor to point out gay and non-Christian employees, with the overt suggestion that there would eventually be a purge of sorts. The Salvation Army denies this.

Despite the Salvation Army's disclaimers, Goldberg cites an internal Salvation Army document describing a deal struck in 2001 with the White House. In exchange for the administration passing regulations protecting faith-based groups from state and local antidiscrimination regulations relative to gays, the Salvation Army agreed to promote the administration's faith-based agenda.

Forget the proverbial wall. Here it is, church and state working hand-in-glove, with tax money and the government-sanctioned intolerance as the prize.

Meanwhile, money is flowing into religious coffers without anyone watching. A June report from the Government Accountability Office found that few government agencies that award grants to faith-based organizations bother to monitor whether the recipient is improperly mixing religion into their programs or discriminating against clients on the basis of religion. A few organizations contacted by the GAO even admitted to praying with clients while providing government-funded services. As to kicking out non-Christians on the staff, the Bush Justice Department says that it is perfectly okay.

Just another example of how, under this president, I hardly recognize my country anymore.

[Last modified August 12, 2006, 20:15:10]


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