WASHINGTON The White House's point man on involving religious groups in government programs issued a spirited defense of the plan yesterday, taking on critics who have raised a host of objections to the idea.
"Compassionate conservatism warmly welcomes godly people back into the public square while respecting and upholding without fail benevolent constitutional traditions," said John DiIulio, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in remarks prepared for the National Association of Evangelicals in Dallas. A copy of the speech was made available in Washington.
In his most extensive public rebuttal to date, DiIulio defended the rights of religious groups, even if they receive government money, to make hiring decisions based on religion.
He said people who don't want government money to go to religious groups outside the mainstream, such as the Nation of Islam, must realize they are not entitled to that kind of veto power. And organizations who fear government money will corrupt their religious core, he said, "ought to simply opt out" of the program.
In 1996, Congress first wrote "charitable choice" into the welfare law, allowing overtly religious groups to compete for government grants to help welfare recipients. Until then, religious groups had to form secular affiliates, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services, to apply for money.
Now President Bush wants to extend charitable choice to all government-funded social programs.
Churches and other religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination laws that bar bias based on religion, meaning they can legally make hiring decisions based on religion. Under charitable choice, these groups maintain that exemption, even if they receive government money.
Civil libertarians who believe the effort is an unconstitutional mingling of church and state have focused on discrimination. "That's the softest unconstitutional underbelly of this whole scheme," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, in a recent interview.
Yesterday, DiIulio defended the right of churches to discriminate.
DiIulio said getting government money shouldn't require an organization to hire someone of a different faith but admitted that's "perhaps the single most contentious aspect" of the program. That, he said, would be akin to forcing Planned Parenthood to hire abortion supporters and opponents.
He said most of the organizations that are probable participants in the program already hire or accept volunteer help from anyone willing. "Theirs is typically an all-hands-on-deck world," he said.
Others argue that the program is flawed because it could lead to nonmainstream religions getting money. Most recently, in an interview with Beliefnet.com, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said he wouldn't want the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah's Witnesses or Muslims to get government grants.
"I don't see how any can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views. I don't know where that would take us," Falwell said.
DiIulio, responding to similar worries, said government will use performance standards to determine which religious groups get money, just as it does for secular groups.
"The Constitution gives taxpayers no right to insist that government decisions, including procurement decisions, will not offend their moral judgments," he said.