Bush Administration Views First Amendment As 'Barrier'

Report on Creating 'level playing field' for Religious Groups Supports Right to Discriminate

Today Bush administration officials sought to bolster their case for more federal dollars for churches and other religious groups to operate social services. At a Brookings Institution forum, White House officials issued a 25-page report in which they attempt to show that religious groups face too many government barriers in their efforts to help the needy and claim that it is time for the federal government to "level the playing field."

People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas called the Bush administration's claims that religious social service missions are unduly hindered by government disingenuous, overblown and ignorant of constitutional principles.

"It is troubling that the Bush administration would characterize regulations protecting constitutional principles or civil rights laws as barriers," Neas said. "The government cannot place itself in the position of advancing the missions of religious bodies. Equally troubling is the report's explicit recommendation that government should give free reign to religious groups to discriminate when operating their social service programs using government funds. The administration is indeed trying to alter the playing field in favor of religious groups. No social service provider, religious or secular, using tax dollars, should be allowed to flout laws barring discrimination or the Constitution's religious liberty protections."

John J. Dilulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), presented a survey of five federal agencies and how they treat religious groups seeking to use federal funds to operate social services. Dilulio and other White House officials argued that in many instances barriers have been created by the government that keep religion from using federal funds to provide social services. As an example, the White House report, called "Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs, cites HUD regulations for community development block grants that require religious groups to agree to refrain from exerting religious influence. According to the report, such regulations are "inappropriately restrictive."

Neas defended such regulations as constitutional safeguards.

"The First Amendment bans government from directly funding religious missions," Neas said. "The HUD regulations targeted by the White House report exist to ensure religious groups use federal funds in a legal manner. The Bush administration's government-religion plan would open the door to government-supported discrimination and would erode the wall between church and state. It is disconcerting the White House feels compelled to distort First Amendment law to advance an unwise and unconstitutional plan."

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