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Setting a Booby Trap for Religious Liberty

Charles Levendosky
© Casper Star-Tribune

In November I wrote that I didn't think Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would introduce a religion amendment. I was wrong.

A few days after I wrote the commentary, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would allow religious groups to apply for federal funding (H.J. Res. 121). It would demolish the wall of separation between church and state. Sen. Hatch followed with the same proposal in mid-December (S.J. Res. 45).

The proposed amendment from both House and Senate reads: "Neither the United States nor any State shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination."

The words sound mild—certainly not controversial. But there's a booby trap between the lines, not empty space.

The proposal means that religious organizations and churches could apply for federal funding. Our tax dollars could be used to support religions with which we fundamentally disagree, find theologically lacking, or personally despise. Imagine being forced to support the white supremacist Christian Identity Church with your labor.

Religious groups would compete for federal grants. And if—in this budget-conscious era of diminishing federal funds—your religion were turned down while another religious group received a grant, you could bring a discrimination suit. One could claim religious favoritism on the part of those making the grant.

The proposal would create an unholy legal mess.

Worse, the amendment would trigger unhealthy rivalry and, eventually, divisiveness among religious groups—as they competed for government favor. Religious animosity and suspicion would fester in communities.

But that's just the surface. Digging deeper reveals the devastating nature of this amendment.

Federal regulations accompany federal dollars.

Any non-profit organization that has received federal funding knows about federal regulations. Any school district can testify about the restrictions that go with federal grants. States chaff under federal rules tied to federal dollars.

Government funding has strings attached. Always.

Do those religious groups who support this constitutional amendment think they will be immune from federal restrictions? If so, they are terribly naive. Dangerously naive.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Rust v. Sullivan (1991) ruled that the Secretary of Health and Human Services can forbid health clinic physicians from discussing abortion if the clinic receives HHS funds.

Further, the court ruled, the human services agency may forbid the physicians from referring patients to other clinics where they might receive such advice—even if such an omission jeopardizes the health of the patients.

The physician-patient relationship is a close one, analogous to the relationship between clergy and a member of his faith. Yet the government has stepped between the two, based merely on federal funding.

By what rationale can one expect the government to resist wreaking havoc in religious relationships once funding is in the balance?

Historically, when a government grants money to religious organizations, it eventually leads to government interference in church matters.

And inevitably, then, government uses religion for its own political and secular ends. Religion is thereby diminished and corrupted.

Such events have occurred in all parts of the world and in every century.

How can a religious leader take the high moral ground in support of a government action if that leader's church is accepting funding from the government? It makes all such support suspect. It blasts the high ground from under a church's moral leadership. It fragments the moral imperative.

Would a church, which receives federal money, be able to protest our nation's entry into an unjust war? Certainly internal church politics might keep a church leader silent, despite his moral objections—especially if critical funding for church projects were at stake.

Is there any doubt that congressional leaders would want to investigate federal funding to any church that was critical of government policies?

Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., just led an attack on non-profit organizations that criticized or lobbied Congress by introducing legislation that would take their federal funding away.

Would the federal government have funded a religious leader's demonstrations against its own racist policies?

If Martin Luther King had been funded by federal grants, would his leadership have had the same moral impact?

Civil power should have no hold over religion.

This amendment, if adopted, would give government a source of persuasion that could render religious denominations morally impotent.

Religious organizations who back this misguided legislation are supporting their own corruption.

James Madison understood that. "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together," he wrote to a correspondent E. Livingston in 1822.

Thomas Jefferson understood it. In his "Bill for Religious Freedom" that was introduced into the Virginia Legislature he wrote, "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever."

The separation of church and state as embodied in the Establishment Clause shields religion from government interference. It forms a wall behind which religious freedom can flourish.

Hatch and Hyde have forgotten their constitutional roots.

Their proposal does a serious disservice to religious liberty and to our religiously diverse citizenry. They should pull the fuse on it and let it quietly rust away.

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