Counting the cost of government funding

The White House recently announced that President Obama would make good on a 2008 campaign promise and sign an executive order banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to a White House Official, the executive order would “build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Politico has reported that the order would cover as many as 28 million workers.

Over at Blog from the Capital, the blog of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Don Byrd emphasized that the executive order “will have a similar impact on contractors with the government that the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would have on most all workplaces.”

Back in November, the U.S. Senate passed ENDA, but the legislation has effectively died in the House of Representatives. Byrd pointed out that crucial to the Senate’s adoption of ENDA was the inclusion of broadly-defined religious exemptions that ensured the legal right of faith-based organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Oregon, who was one of 10 Republican Senators to support ENDA, has said that the President’s executive order should include the same religious exemptions included in the Senate’s nondiscrimination bill.

Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter says that the President’s forthcoming executive order “will give the [Catholic] bishops heartburn.” No doubt. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was a strong opponent of ENDA, depicting the Senate bill as a grave threat to religious freedom.

“Getting the church out of the business of helping the poor with federal dollars would please secularists who don’t think religious groups should be providing social services with government money,” wrote Reese. “But, it would be devastating for the poor themselves.”

Reese acknowledged that “only an extremely small percentage of the U.S. budget involves contracts with religiously affiliated organizations” and that “most of the money going to Catholic charities…comes in the form of grants, not contracts.” However, he warned that if the Obama Administration is successful banning workplace discrimination with regard to federal contracts then federal grants will soon face the same scrutiny.

I do sympathize with Reese and the Bishops. Groups like Catholic Charities do life-changing gospel work, from serving victims of human trafficking to feeding the hungry to caring for orphans.

They simply want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. But both the culture and politics are changing rapidly and the bishops are grappling with how to relate to a government that they feel has become far more foe than friend.

From my Baptist vantage point, I recognize that the problem is federal funding. One need not be a secularist to see this — being Baptist will do.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Catholic Charities USA receives more than half of its annual funding from federal grants. That amounted to $554 million in 2010. Such a church-state relationship for any faith-based organization seems unhealthy — especially if the organization values its autonomy.

James Dunn, a Baptist hero of mine, once said, “Churches appeal for state assistance without counting the cost. When government meddles in religion, it always has the touch of mud.”

And the cost is not cheap.

For the Catholic Bishops, their definition of “religious freedom” is inextricably tied to an attitude of entitlement to tax-payer dollars and the conviction that its institutions ought to be free to operate as it wishes with those dollars.

This definition limits liberty. It privileges the demands of institutions over the consciences of individuals and doesn’t allow for or encourage a healthy distance between church and state. We still need, to quote Dunn again, that “logical, inevitable corollary of religious liberty…the plug which if pulled out of our machine, the motor dies and we go no more” — the separation of church and state.

Gardner Taylor, the great African-American “Prince of the Pulpit,” has said that church-state separation is needed so that the church will have “swinging room.”

When a church becomes dependent on the government, don’t expect much room to swing.

Rendering to Caesar is part and parcel of a “partnership” with the government. And, taxpayer-funded discrimination in the realm of religion is destructive to the freedom and integrity of the individual conscience.

The bishops are now realizing the former. Religious freedom would be well-served if they realize the latter to be true too.


Aaron Weaver

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Aaron Weaver is a recent graduate of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he received a Ph.D. in Religion, Politics & Society. He blogs at and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).

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