The Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Can We Unplug It?

Rob Boston

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as a government-run “faith-based" initiative. A federal office that does nothing but look for ways to funnel mo ney to religious organizations is hard to square with the separation of church and state. But the reality is that we are way beyond that discussion.

The general idea behind a faith-based initiative is that government will give tax funds to religious groups and those groups will in turn provide some type of secular service to people in need. It never made a whole lot of sense. Why would religious groups want to provide nonreligious services? But the sad fact is that we lost this battle way back in 1899. In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bradfield v. Roberts, ruling that a Roman Catholic hospital in Washington, D.C., could receive government money to provide a secular service (health care, in this case) to the poor. It’s an old decision—and some of its central findings have been modified by later rulings—but the core finding of Bradfield remains intact: not all tax aid to religious groups is unconstitutional.

It took a long time for the principles enshrined in Bradfield to spread to other types of social-service programs. That’s because for many years the federal government simply had no interest in funding programs for the poor and disadvantaged on a massive scale. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society challenged that notion, and once these types of programs took hold in the federal government in the 1960s, it was inevitable that religious groups would be involved.

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