On Saturday, the White House faith advisory council task force released recommendations for government agencies that do business with faith-based social service groups. These recommendations touch on several issues related to a recently filed lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. In that case, the ACLU asked a court to order the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to release documents related to its funding of religious abstinence-only-until-marriage programs overseas, which will likely uncover violations of the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.
Interestingly, the faith advisory recommendations say that USAID is better suited than the Department of Defense for development work. Though perhaps correct, the shift of additional work to USAID only increases the need for additional oversight of its faith-based work given that USAID has a history of violating the Constitution. Indeed, the ACLU's investigation was triggered in July 2009, when the Inspector General of USAID released a report (PDF) after auditing USAID's faith-based grantees. The report came to startling conclusions about the misuse of government funds. For example, the Inspector General noted several instances of biblical references in government-funded curricula, and USAID itself admitted that some of the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs it funds "reflect a religious perspective and include religiously infused materials and religious references." One of the curricula includes an optional biblical verse for "reflection or memorization," the purpose of which is to show students that "God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm."
As the Inspector General properly recognized, government funding of religious programs is a clear violation of the Constitution. Though there is a recent debate about the extent to which the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state applies overseas, there can be no question that taxpayer dollars cannot be spent on religiously infused abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — regardless of whether there are taught domestically or abroad.
And USAID's indifference to the concept of separation of church and state is not limited to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. USAID is allowing one of its largest development grantees, World Vision, to use taxpayer funds to discriminate on the basis of religion.
Furthermore, taxpayer-supported religious indoctrination in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is particularly unconscionable in the face of the global HIV/AIDS crisis: The government dollars that are being spent on religion come from dedicated HIV/AIDS prevention funds, so young people are learning biblical verses instead of valuable health information that could save their lives.
The Inspector General's report details some of the constitutional violations, but that is where the report ends. We don't know, for example, whether USAID instructed its grantees to stop using religious curricula, or whether USAID has developed policies to ensure that its grantees do not use government dollars to promote religion. To answer these questions, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests in July and September of 2009 seeking all documents related to the abstinence-only-until-marriage program. We have not received a single document in response to our request. Thus, the filing of a lawsuit became necessary.
In addition to recommending shifting development to USAID, the faith advisory's recommendations also include some important suggestions, including ensuring that grantees do not use government funds to pay for religious instruction. We hope that this recommendation, coupled with the Obama administration's promise to implement programs that are based on science, not ideology, will lead the administration to do the right thing: ensure compliance with the Constitution and implement government-funded programs that give youth the tools they need to make healthy decisions.