In the midst of the debate about whether the government should help faith-based social services and schools, religious groups themselves are expressing reservations about such arrangements and looking around for alternatives.
The reserve that some religious groups have regarding new church-state partnerships is in evidence in Wisconsin, a test state for vouchers for religious and other private schools. Policy Review magazine (January/February) reports that many religious educators in the state find the victory of vouchers not so much a victory as a “Trojan horse for government meddling in private education.” Because schools are saddled with a “hodge-podge of federal and state regulations,” there is a “growing uncertainty about the long-term impact of government vouchers on sectarian schools,” writes Joe Locante.
Such state policies, for instance, stipulate that participating schools must loosen up their admission policies and allow voucher students to opt out of religious activities. A 1998 Department of Education survey confirms the unease of many Wisconsin religious educators about such an “opt out” law. Drawing from 22 urban areas nationwide, the study found that few sectarian schools would join voucher programs that allowed exemptions from religious activities or instruction.
The Milwaukee School Choice Program is the one to watch in regard to satisfaction among religious schools about vouchers. So far, few students have acted on the “opt-out” clause. But government-imposed conditions on admissions–such as lotteries run to determine where students are placed — is another obstacle to wide acceptance of vouchers in schools. Schools that are closely tied to congregations or having a distinctive religious identity balk at having to admit students and families that don’t fit in or agree with their ethos or philosophy.
The American Enterprise magazine (March/April) notes that traditionally, religious charities have “taken one of two routes where government funds are concerned.” Either they accept government funds, whereby they tend to de-emphasize their religious side, or, like some of the schools cited above, they refuse such aid in fear of compromising their religious mission and identity. But increasingly, many faith-based organizations are pursuing a third path — cooperating with the government while not taking tax dollars for such work.
Joe Locante cites the example of Prison Fellowship. In one prison outside Houston, Texas, prison officials let the evangelical ministry operate a wing of the prison where evangelism and Bible studies are emphasized. Prison Fellowship’s arrangement is carefully designed so that the ministry receives no government subsidies; prisoners are free to leave the program at any time, and their participation has no effect on the length of an inmate’s sentence.
These restrictions have kept the ministry from being attacked by the ACLU. In Michigan the religious charity Kids Hope USA sends over 700 tutors from 35 congregations into troubled elementary schools. The tutors don’t evangelize students and parental permission is a requirement for participation.
But there appears little conflict in the case of ministries and charities working abroad in accepting public money, according to a recent study. The Newsletter of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (Winter) reports on a study of 23 faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by Pepperdine University scholar Stephen Monsma which found that their religious integrity and independence have not been seriously compromised. Monsma explains that two factors may be at work in this unexpected finding: the indifference of watchdog groups for the separation of church and state in this realm of state funding and the fact that these groups, such as the relief agency World Vision, do “work that no one else is eager to do.”
Monsma concludes that faith-based groups working abroad need to bolster their shaky legal position by insisting that the constitutional basis on which the government distributes these funds is one of “even-handedness” or “neutrality” toward both religious and secular organizations.
(Policy Review, 214 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002; American Enterprise, 1150 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1015 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005)