Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Faith-Based Service Providers Proselytize? Who Would've Guessed?

The Chicago Tribune this week had a major story about how faith-based organizations hired to do work for the government are being sued left and right.
Faith-based groups are barred from proselytizing or engaging in other obvious religious activity when using federal funds to encourage teenagers to abstain from premarital sex or help substance abusers fight addictions.

But some groups may have run afoul of that federal prohibition. Lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation accuse the faith-based organizations and the government of violating the constitutional separation of church and state. Meanwhile, experts say the Bush administration is doing too little to monitor religious groups receiving federal money. Faith-based organizations face suits: Groups using federal funds are accused of proselytizing [free registration required]

It sounded like a good idea. You want to feed the needy? Some churches would like to feed the needy, and they have volunteers who just love to help. We'll let the government buy them some groceries and those nice little old ladies can go out and help those sad people.

And really, if the generosity of a faith-based group impressed somebody, and they decided to join that group, there wouldn't be any problem. But ...
According to the federal rules, faith-based groups receiving government aid for social service programs may not use federal dollars for any "inherently religious" activities. Further, participation in religious activities by someone who receives assistance must clearly be voluntary. And people receiving government money to fight substance abuse must be offered a non-religious alternative if they voice discomfort with the use of a faith-based provider.

I think it's important that The Tribune notes that not all faith-based groups have a problem with this.
Although Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family Services long ago learned to clearly separate religion from the government-funded social services they provide, experts say some new recipients of federal funding--often groups operating out of churches, synagogues, mosques and storefronts--are less careful. And critics say the monitoring of these groups has not kept pace with the increase in applicants for money since President Bush began lowering their barriers to federal funding in 2001.

Some groups just don't seem to get the distinction, or don't care.

The Tribune offered an example of why this would be a problem.
The existing regulations are meant to prevent cases such as that of Joseph Hanas. After he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession, a county drug court judge in Michigan gave the 23-year-old Flint construction worker a choice: agree to live for a year at Inner City Christian Outreach, a faith-based residential facility, or be sent to jail. Hanas chose Inner City, which is run by a Pentecostal church.

At Inner City, staffers told Hanas that his Roman Catholic faith was "witchcraft" and prevented his priest from visiting him or giving him his rosary beads, Hanas said.

And instead of substance-abuse treatment, Hanas said he was forced to read the Bible several hours each day, attend five hours of church on Sundays and was told the only way he would successfully complete the program was to convert to the Pentecostal church.

"I felt helpless. I was threatened by prison and jail by the pastor the whole time I was in there," Hanas said. After three months, the judge responded to his complaints by removing him and sending him to jail.

Sometimes a guy'd rather be in jail.

This is a hard problem. Someone may have a fervent, heartfelt religious belief, and they may feel -- I'm sure they do feel -- that they are really helping someone by offering them the truth as they believe it to be. I'm pretty sure that the people who want to influence our Montgomery County curricula really feel their beliefs are correct, they really do feel that homosexuality is a constant threat to the family and all that is moral, and that you catch it by talking about it. I'll bet you Bob Knight really does think he caught Mattel trying to ... transgenderize ... little girls.

And who knows? There's always that joke about dying and going to heaven, and finding out that God is a ... [insert a religion, not your own, here]. Maybe these guys have some profound knowledge that lowbrows like myself are incapable of understanding -- maybe when we meet our Maker, God will be Their Guy.

But maybe He won't.

And in that light, the way our country works, they have the right to their beliefs but they don't have the right to promote them through the government. It's as good a system as I can think of, but it ain't always pretty.


Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

I have always felt that the Christian penchant for proselytizing was its most pernicious characteristic in America. Today we see it in these "faith-based" charities, the Air Force Academy, and, of course, on street corners. If Christianity is truly so wonderful, don't you think people would notice? Don't reasonable people believe that the best way to "convert" someone is to model the behavior you feel is so attractive? Parents do this with their children all the time.

2000 years ago Christianity swept the West by doing just that, but once it became a state religion out came the swords. It seems to be a part of human nature.

January 04, 2006 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole idea that churches should ignore the spiritual life of those they're trying to help is obnoxious. The reason they're better at providing services is because they tend to work with the whole person.

The pot smoker was probably only given a choice to go to the Pentecostal place or jail because that's all that was available. No real harm done since his only other alternative was jail anyway. If you atheists have a problem with it, start a rehab place of your own. If you have evidence of efectiveness, I doubt you'll be discriminated against.

This is similar to the school voucher catch-22. We can't have vouchers because that would support religious schools since most private schools are religious. It's no crime, especially in America, to be successful.

January 06, 2006 3:57 PM  

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