Religion is one of the specialty beats in the modern newsroom where knowledge and experience can really pay off. There are times when it really helps to have seen the same kinds of stories develop over and over again, which allows you a chance to look further down the road and anticipate what might happen. Veteran columnist Peter Steinfels at the New York Times has been to the church-state wars many times. Thus, I think it would help if some reporters who are currently covering the White House race paid some attention to his piece on Sen. Barack Obama's recent speech on retaining parts of the Bush camp's current faith-based initiative.
Steinfels is no spin master on the right or left. He's simply looking down the road. Pay close attention and you'll hear echoes of other ongoing religious-liberty disputes.
The headline on this "Beliefs" column is "Obama Sets Off a Debate on Ties Between Religion and Government." Steinfels jumps right to the point. Obama's entire speech comes down to the status of six words. Count 'em. Six.
He was two-thirds of the way through his remarks when he inserted the six words with the potential to put his whole effort at risk. Speaking "as someone who used to teach constitutional law," he spelled out "a few basic principles" to reassure listeners that such partnerships between religious groups and the government would not endanger the separation of church and state.
"First," he said, "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion."
The fuse was lit with "or against the people you hire."
In other words, religious groups cannot follow doctrinal standards when hiring. This is new territory, crossing into territory that as recently as the Clinton White House was defended by church-state experts on left and right. Steinfels continues:
Religious groups that know the law have long agreed that federal money cannot be used for proselytizing or discriminating against beneficiaries. But they have never agreed that taking religious considerations into account in hiring personnel -- certainly for top positions if not for all staffing -- should be considered discrimination. And they point to the religious exemption in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislative and Supreme Court decisions to back this assertion.
The law, in fact, has its ambiguities and inconsistencies, as one might expect. But when the Bush administration's religion-based initiative was debated in 2001, Jeffrey Rosen, who teaches law at George Washington University and is a regular contributor to The New York Times and other publications, pointed out the logic in an article in The New Republic.
"It's not hard to understand why faith-based organizations need to discriminate on the basis of religion to maintain their essentially religious character," Mr. Rosen wrote. "A Jewish organization forced to hire Baptists soon ceases to be Jewish at all."
Mr. Rosen also noted that "without the ability to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing staff, religious organizations lose the right to define their organizational mission enjoyed by secular organizations that receive public funds." If Planned Parenthood could refuse to hire people disagreeing with its views about abortion, why should churches, mosques and synagogues not have the same right?
In other words, look at this issue in a mirror.
Try to imagine non-profit, religious AIDS ministries on the left not being allowed to exclude true, hard-shell fundamentalists or people who have a completely different approach to scripture when it comes to sin and sexuality. Imagine Muslim groups not being allowed to hire only Muslims. Imagine Unitarian groups having to hire Southern Baptist pastors in social ministries. Turn that church-state mirror around (click here for another scenario I wrote about five years ago).
There were brave and consistent conservatives -- think Marvin Olasky, for one -- who raised questions about George W. Bush's initiative for similar reasons, saying that religious groups were at risk if they took government money that would limit their evangelism efforts. Now, other doctrines are clearly at risk. We could end up with an expanded faith-based initiative that pours millions of government dollars only into religious-rooted projects that do not insist on doctrinal absolutes.
Talk about entanglement in doctrine. Of course, one could argue that the only absolute then would be the doctrinal statement that there can be no doctrinal absolutes, with this new absolute anti-absolutes doctrine backed by the power and tax dollars of the state.
Steinfels is right. This argument is just beginning. Will the old church-state coalition come back together and defend the current laws? Maybe. Or, and this is another valid legal option, perhaps courts would simply shut down government funding for all religious groups equally, in the left and right. Either way, it is a giant story. Stay tuned.