Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed an executive order last week to create the Governor’s Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives, which will build partnerships between the state and faith-based organizations. Citing the efficiency of religious groups, she claims that by providing state funding to these organizations, Michigan can take advantage of its well-established service infrastructure and effectiveness. While this move will infuse the state’s stretched aid budget with matching federal funds, the ideological costs of threatening the First Amendment far exceed any tangible benefits. By paralleling the efforts of President Bush, Granholm is contributing to the dangerous mixing of religion and government.
Blurring the line between church and state threatens the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and years of judicial precedent defending what Thomas Jefferson called, “a wall of separation between church and state.” While removing just one brick by funding faith-based initiatives could be effective in improving social programs, it risks the collapse of the entire barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court set a solid precedent in 1947 with Everson v. Board of Education, ruling that, “Neither a state or the federal government may, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.”
Just as matters of religion should not be a part of the government’s realm, state intervention would harm religious groups. Government bureaucracy could easily limit the autonomy of faith-based institutions and strangle initiatives with red tape. By financing faith-based organizations, the burden of responsibly ensuring that the organization is not proselytizing falls upon the group itself. The state government cannot micromanage every organization or individual involved in these initiatives, and there is a high risk of favoring certain religions. While Granholm has assured that the government will not be endorsing or discriminating against any particular religion, a transparent, fair way of determining which groups would receive funding would be only the first of many difficult obstacles.
These organizations can enact effective social change, much in part because of their infrastructure and their members’ commitment to volunteerism and social work. Their existence, however, is not based on state subsidies — just as before, they will continue operating regardless of financial support. These logistical issues, however, are irrelevant in light of the overriding constitutional guarantee preventing government interference in religion that would be violated by financing faith-based initiatives.
Hiding behind the promise of more effective programs does not compensate for the fact that state funding of faith-based initiatives is ultimately an unconstitutional act of religious endorsement by the government. Given the pending legislation in Congress that permits religiously affiliated organizations to discriminate based on religion while receiving federal funds, there is a long fight ahead for the preservation of secularism within the government. Rather than entangling themselves in religion, state social programs can learn from the efficiency of such faith-based organizations and should work to build and incorporate the infrastructure and loyalty that characterize the most successful faith-based initiatives.