Faith-Based Favoritism

I'm not gracious enough to resist saying, "I told you so," when I see rival
religious groups fighting over federal funds. Only a few weeks after President
George W. Bush announced a federal initiative to fund sectarian religious
organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was reportedly pressuring the
administration--with some success--not to underwrite the Nation of Islam.
According to The New York Times, ADL representatives left a meeting with
John J. DiIulio, Jr., director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives, "reassured that the president would not allow financing for the
Nation of Islam's programs."

The ADL, an organization devoted to opposing discrimination against Jews,
might have spared itself the embarrassment of lobbying in favor of discrimination
against Muslims. Bush made clear his aversion to the Nation of Islam during the
2000 election campaign: "I don't see how we can allow public dollars to fund
programs where spite and hate is the core of the message. Louis Farrakhan
preaches hate," he declared. DiIulio will be hard-pressed to reconcile the
blacklisting of a national religious organization with his promise that the
allocation of federal funds will be based on "facts, not faith; performance, not
politics; results, not religion." But public opinion probably opposes the funding
of unpopular religions more than it supports religious equality.

Not many people openly support discrimination or even tell themselves that
they believe in it. Yet many will eagerly distinguish between true and false
religions; and denying equal treatment to the latter seems no more
discriminatory than refusing to hire someone with fake credentials. Religions apt
to be labeled false are seen as con games; by funding them, government officials
look like easy marks. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently came under fire for
endorsing a literacy program affiliated with the Church of Scientology, which
many consider a cult. (The mayor defended himself by claiming ignorance of the
Scientology connection.)

Unease about allegedly counterfeit religions is growing. Bush's faithful ally
Pat Robertson is fearful of a nondiscriminatory "faith-based" initiative. He
laments that "such groups as the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, and the
Church of Scientology could all become financial beneficiaries of the proposal to
extend eligibility for government grants to religious charities." This is
apparently a painful epiphany: "I hate to find myself on the side of the
Anti-Defamation League, and others," Robertson observed. But if there's one thing
that worries him more than no government support for religion, it's government
support for religions he doesn't like.

This impulse to pass judgment on minority religions is ubiquitous. In
Massachusetts several colleges have banned the Boston Church of Christ from their
campuses, labeling it a cult. "They are destructive to freedom of thought,
freedom of movement, and freedom of activity," the Reverend Robert W. Thornburg
of Boston University asserts. Maybe so, but some overwrought atheists would offer
a similar description of mainstream religions; and even established minority
faiths are apt to be labeled cults by the majority. In France a proposed anticult
law criminalizing "mental manipulation" by religious groups has alarmed some
American Evangelicals, who fear it will curtail their freedom. (What preachers
don't engage in mental manipulation?) Included in the French government's list of
dangerous religious groups are the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the
Scientologists. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned this
legislation for stigmatizing "legitimate expressions of religious faith."
Albright's stance begs the question, Which religions would she classify as
illegitimate?

To some extent, official judgments about true or false faiths are unavoidable
when the government offers a benefit to religious groups--another reason to
prohibit state support of churches. The Internal Revenue Service, for example,
has to decide which organizations qualify for exemptions under the tax code.
(Under pressure of a lawsuit, it recognized the Church of Scientology.) But the
appropriately broad definition of religion offered by the Supreme
Court--essentially, "a sincere and meaningful" belief in some transcendent
power--will not please those who are offended by the mere suggestion that
Wiccans or Moonies, much less Satanists, should enjoy the same legal status as
Pentecostalists or Presbyterians.

Given prevailing concerns that federal funds might be allocated evenhandedly
to religious groups, there's no small irony in the fact that Bush's faith-based
initiative and charitable-choice bills proposed in Congress have been marketed as
efforts to end religious discrimination. Advocates of state-sponsored religious
activities, from official school prayers to sectarian drug counseling, have been
quite successful in equating the separation of church and state with
discrimination against particular churches seeking state support. John DiIulio
cites "end[ing] discrimination against religious providers of social services" as
a primary mission of his office.

What discrimination? you might ask. Federal funding is already available to
religious service providers who establish secular affiliates to administer it.
But this debate is not really about the government's obligation to accommodate
religious belief and treat all sects equally. It's about the entitlement of
particular religious groups to government support. Borrowing the rhetoric of
stigmatized or subordinate groups that have had to fight for civil rights,
believers who seek state sponsorship cast themselves as oppressed minorities who
demand not privileges but rights. Christian Coalition co-founder Ralph Reed and
others have asserted that when a school system declines to sponsor an official
prayer, it violates the rights of students who wish to pray.

It's always amusing to see right-wingers who have loudly derided the
"victimism" of the left play the victim when their own sense of entitlement is
threatened. (Remember how Ronald Reagan's administration cloaked its attack on
affirmative action as a defense of white male victims of reverse discrimination?)
Religious groups, even those that are part of a Christian majority, have become
particularly adept at this game. Attorney General John Ashcroft was characterized
as a victim of anti-Christian bigotry when Democrats questioned his record or his
fitness for office. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cast his campaign to
censor "offensive" exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as an effort to stop
the victimization of Catholics.

You don't have to examine these claims deeply to recognize their flaws. Take
the argument that abolition of official school prayer is discriminatory. It
ignores the fact that students have an undisputed right to organize their own
prayer groups in school, say grace in the cafeteria, call on God's help in a
football game, or use school facilities for extracurricular religious activities.
A great deal of religious expression is permitted in school (and is protected by
the First Amendment). What is prohibited is officially organized religious prayer
or proselytizing that infringes upon the religious freedom of others. People who
want school-sanctioned prayers that all students are formally required or
informally coerced to recite seek religious power over others, not religious
rights.

There are hard cases that involve the complex interplay between constitutional
prohibitions on establishing religion and guarantees of its free exercise: When
churches get special treatment from zoning boards, is that establishment of
religion or accommodation of it? But efforts to require school prayer or provide
public support for sectarian social service programs don't cure religious
discrimination; they create it. Why didn't it occur to charitable-choice
proponents that unpopular religions and even "cults" would qualify for federal
funds? They put their own sense of entitlement above other people's rights.

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