ACLU Urges Congress to Reject Government Funded Religion As House Committee Marks Up Community Services Bill

September 25, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In the latest skirmish over President Bush’s scheme for government-funded religion, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged a House panel to adopt a measure to preserve civil rights protections and prohibit tax dollars from being diverted to fund religious activities.

This morning, the House Education and Workforce Committee is scheduled to consider legislation that would reauthorize the Community Services Block Grant Act through 2009. During the committee’s consideration, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) is expected to offer an amendment that would protect civil rights and stop the diversion of funds.

“”The Woolsey amendment, if adopted, would help bring the block grant program into compliance with the Constitution,”” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU legislative counsel. “”It mirrors the parameters established by the Supreme Court to ensure that tax-payer dollars do not fund religious discrimination or religious activities. Without the Woolsey Amendment, the block grant program would be open to groups who violate the civil rights of religious minorities and inhibit their access to vital federal services.””

While the language of the block grant act states that no funds may be used for “”inherently religious activities,”” the measure fails to clarify what activities would fall under that purview. The ACLU said similar guidelines used in other federal activities have led to programs being implemented that were later found to be unconstitutional. For example, one faith-based organization that received federal funds used Bible stories in its vocational training programs.

Religious organizations can participate in federal programs if they uphold civil rights protections and operate the programs in a secular manner. But the current block grant bill specifically allows government-funded religious groups to discriminate against employees in federally funded programs, a provision that the ACLU said is clearly unconstitutional. In 1988’s Bowen v. Kendrick, for example, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority of the Supreme Court in holding that religious organizations may use public monies only if they do not “”discriminate on the basis of religion”” in the specific program and if all programs are carried out “”in a lawful, secular manner.””

The amendment offered by Woolsey seeks to clarify the language to ensure that the block grant recipients do not use those funds to engage in religious discrimination. In addition, it would require that each recipient apply funds in a “”lawful and secular manner.”” Both of these provisions parallel the Rehnquist majority opinion in Bowen that calls for taxpayer-funded faith based organizations to refrain from discrimination.

The ACLU said that its concern about misuse of CSBG funds is heightened by the recent push by the Bush Administration to send more taxpayer dollars to religious groups that discriminate against anyone who does not share the group’s beliefs. “”Americans don’t want to see their taxes go to an institution that refuses to hire someone because of their religious beliefs,”” added Anders.

The ACLU’s letter to the Committee on the Community Services Block Grant Act can be found at:

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