WASHINGTON — In a tacit admission of their inability to block President Bush’s faith-based initiative, the Anti-Defamation League and other civil-liberties groups are shifting their fight to the field, in a concerted effort to monitor social service programs run by religious organizations.
The Forward has learned that ADL staffers in Washington last month spent days combing through a list of some 3,600 organizations and institutions across America that received new government funds to deliver services to the homeless. The goal was to determine which religious groups received funds, the size of each allocation and how much of the total $1.1 billion in grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development was funneled to religious organizations.
After the data was analyzed, computerized lists of the faith-based grantees were sent to ADL’s 28 regional offices throughout the United States. Field officers with the league were instructed to use the lists to ensure that church-state guidelines are being respected as more religious groups receive federal funds.
“We are literally following the money” as it’s disbursed from Washington to religious groups in the field, said ADL’s top lawyer, Michael Lieberman.
The new strategy — which liberal groups acknowledge is highly inefficient, costly and unlikely to provide an adequate check against constitutional violations — is a result of two recent developments. First, a series of court rulings opened the way for the federal and state governments to fund social services through religious organizations. The other development is President Bush’s insistence on bypassing congressional opposition and pushing his “charitable choice” initiative by executive order.
Two weeks ago, during a speech at a Louisiana church, Bush talked about the “miracle of salvation” in the context of federally funded faith-based programs. Bush asserted that “faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith” and described the Bible as the “handbook” for federally funded childcare programs in churches. He also declared that “faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules, and it’s bigger than government rules.”
To critics of the administration, such rhetoric suggests a patently unconstitutional approach. But to supporters, said Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University and co-director of a research project analyzing legal aspects of the partnership between government and religious organizations, Bush sounded as if he was challenging opponents of his faith-based initiative to a legal fight that the president believes he will win.
“The president’s point was — and he has made it frequently — that these faith-based organizations hold themselves by a high standard,” said one White House official who asked not to be identified. “He was certainly making clear that faith-based groups follow the rules like anybody else. He was just pointing out that these groups are holding themselves to a higher standard.”
Liberal groups, however, are taking no chances as they assume the role of watchdog. The problem, administration critics said, is that the task of monitoring the conduct of hundreds of religious social service providers is beyond the capability of civil rights groups.
“We do the best with the means that we have,” said Jeremy Leaming, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We are telling our members: ‘Be on the lookout for violations’ — but that is not much.”
Even if alleged violations are discovered, civil liberties groups are unlikely to take legal action, unless they feel they are on solid constitutional ground. “We are not going to bring a legal case until we are certain that we have one that is going to win,” Leaming said.
But finding a case that would guarantee a sure win is a serious challenge, church-state activists said, because to a large extent the warring parties on this issue are treading in undefined constitutional territory. “It has really taken until now for there to be enough happening, for there to be case studies, for there to be cases of abuses coming to light, or for that matter, an interest in folks on the ground in trying to ensure that the programs operate in an appropriate fashion,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. “We are at the very beginning of the courts addressing the issue.”
A full-blown legal campaign is not imminent, said officials at groups that oppose or have expressed serious concerns about the president’s faith-based initiative. “At the moment, we are trying to figure out which religious institutions are receiving funds, how much and what precisely for,” said Roger Limoges, deputy director for public policy at the Interfaith Alliance. “Only when this happens will people be able to make the next step, demand more accountability and open things up.”
Lieberman of the ADL said any consideration of legal action will be considered further down the road.
But religious groups may want to get a second opinion, according to the White House official.
“We certainly share the same goal [as the ADL],” the official said. “But as you well know, there are disagreements” over constitutional requirements concerning the partnership between government and religious institutions, the official said. “I would obviously get to this with caution about projecting what is a constitutional mandate that may just be an interpretation by one group or another.”