Report says feds discriminate with grants

The Associated Press
Friday August 17, 2001

WASHINGTON — Federal officials routinely discriminate against religious groups when handing out grant money, taking constitutional concerns about the separation of church and state too far, the White House contended in a report Thursday. 

Head Start centers shouldn’t be forced to remove religious signs from walls, the report says, and housing regulations shouldn’t bar organizations dubbed “primarily religious” from participating in community development programs. 

The report, based on data from five federal departments, reiterates many of the points White House officials have made for months as they campaign to direct more government money to religious groups. 

Until now, that campaign has focused on getting Congress to pass legislation opening government’s doors wider to churches, synagogues and other “faith-based organizations.” With this report, the White House is arguing that federal agencies have the power under current law but often act as if they don’t. 

“It is not Congress but these overly restrictive agency rules that are repressive, restrictive and which actively undermine the established civil rights of these groups,” the report concludes. 

The report repeatedly asserts that it is unconstitutional for these agencies to discriminate against religious organizations, although that point is widely debated and far from settled. 

For many years, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to give taxpayer dollars to “pervasively sectarian” organizations, to keep government from establishing religion or intruding upon it. 

In recent years, the court has opened the door to funding of some religious groups, but so far the court has stopped short of abandoning its earlier, more restrictive rulings. 

Asked about this debate, Bush domestic policy adviser John Bridgeland said that’s why legislation is needed — to make it clear that religious groups can get the money. In the meantime, he said, departments may suggest policy changes. 

President Bush, who ordered the report, suggested regulatory action might be coming. 

“We now see exactly what kind of obstacles stand in the way of a more compassionate America,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to addressing these inequities through legislation, administrative action and education.” 

Titled “Unlevel Playing Field,” the report includes information from five agencies – Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Justice and Housing and Urban Development – each of which searched for institutional barriers that prevent religious and community-based groups from taking part in government programs. 

Some agencies, the report says, put religious groups into two categories: “too religious” and “secular enough.” Where participation is not banned outright, it says, religious organizations often face an “unwelcoming environment.” 

Civil liberties groups responded that established law is being followed. 

“What they call barriers, most people would call the Constitution of the United States,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Highly trained, nonpartisan government employees are trying to obey the Constitution as written, not the fanciful interpretation the White House wishes for.” 


The broader question — whether religious groups should be allowed to offer more programs with government money — has been the subject of a six-month debate in Congress. Legislation approved by the House would make it clear that such groups may compete for grants without putting aside their own religious character. The matter is pending in the Senate. 

The report also concluded: 

—It is hard to measure precisely how much federal money religious groups now get, though anecdotally it appears they get very little. That is partly because they choose not to apply for it, fearing they will be forced to strip away their religious character. 

—Federal officials have largely ignored “charitable choice” laws, which open government welfare, drug treatment and community development programs. They have done little to help states and local governments comply with the new rules. 

—Very little is done to measure how well the groups that get the bulk of government money actually perform, meaning there’s little rationale for giving the same groups the big contracts every year. 

—Cumbersome regulations and requirements make it hard for smaller organizations — both religious and secular — to participate in federal programs.