On Feb. 3, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, visited St. Thomas Moore Chapel and pledged that he “strongly believes” in the constitutional separation of church and state, and touted his mission to “end discrimination against faith-based organizations.” The next morning, the Bush White House issued a “Statement of Administration Policy” calling on the House of Representatives to defeat amendments to the Community Services Block Grants Act, H.R. 3030, requiring faith-based agencies receiving federal funding to comply with federal civil rights standards and threatening a veto of any bill amended to prohibit discrimination by faith-based agencies funded by American taxpayers. Three such amendments were offered last Wednesday, and — in accordance with the president’s directive — all three were defeated, threatening the separation of church and state and making Towey’s expressed dedication to the principle ring unfortunately hollow.

On Friday, Christopher Ashley (“State needs religious and secular efforts,” 2/6) argued that “Society changes for the better because of the imagination and action of its citizens,” through both religious and secular organizations, and that both can engage in worthwhile projects that deserve government support. Few could, or would want to, dispute that argument. I don’t; neither does Americans United for Separation of Church and State. That’s why, under American law, religiously based organizations have for decades been eligible to receive federal funding — as long as they are formally separate institutions that conform to the same rules that regulate other charities funded by American citizens. One of these, Catholic Charities, is the largest charity in the United States, and a year before Bush’s inauguration was receiving two-thirds of its budget from the U.S. government. Towey, however, argued last week that “you institute a secular religion if you don’t allow religion in social services,” and Ashley cited the argument that “anyone who separates government money from religious-religious organizations is proposing an alternative religion of secularism, one that seeks to shut out traditional religions.” This is the argument as well behind President Bush’s State of the Union exhortation to Congress to pass his faith-based initiative bill “so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again.”

But as those who work for Catholic Charities know, faith-based organizations already have the “level playing field” that Bush claims he wants to grant them. The real threat to the “respect for differences of faith and race,” which Bush named in his address as one of America’s enduring values, is the very legislation he’s promoting. On the same day Towey was at Yale touting the constitutionality and compassion of the administration’s agenda, the administration’s allies in the right-wing lobby Focus on the Family sent out an activist alert warning that if proposed amendments to H.R. 3030 passed, “Christian charities interested in accepting federal funds would be required to ignore religious conviction in hiring — even if potential employees practiced Islam, Judaism or no religion at all.” Behind Bush’s pluralistic rhetoric is a move to deny equal protection to people of all religious, racial and sexual identities seeking government-subsidized jobs by suspending for faith-based charities the expectations to which other organizations are held.

Holding faith-based charities to a different standard can also pose dire risks for those they are supposed to help, as Texas under Governor Bush’s faith-based experiment demonstrated. In 1997, Bush revoked training and safety regulations for faith-based charities in Texas after state regulators called for one of them, Teen Challenge, to be shut down because its staff was unlicensed. Teen Challenge, which had a stated mission “to evangelize people,” and which Bush praised in a 1999 speech as governor for its philosophy, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” was served with a 49-page list of regulatory violations, including illegally dispensing medication. The Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a coalition of 7,500 religious and community leaders, reported last year that confirmed abuse and neglect at faith-based Texas childcare providers rose to 25 times the rate at providers licensed by the state. As TFN’s political director asserted, “We know that faith-based initiatives violate the religious freedom of people in need. In Texas, our record shows that the faith-based initiative also puts people in danger.”

Holding religious organizations to the same civil rights and regulatory standards as other government-funded agencies does not, as Towey alleges, institute a secular religion, any more than prohibiting teachers from mandating prayer in their classrooms violates students’ religious freedom. The United States, as George Washington observed centuries ago, is not a Christian nation. It is, at its best moments, a democratic one, governed by democratic law. One virtue democratic law has to recommend it is that — in its ideal form — it is accountable to those whom it governs. As long as civil rights and regulatory standards are among its articles of faith, organizations seeking government funding should be expected to comply. Ashley writes that as a liberal, he wants to see devout religious organizations receive government assistance. As a religious day school graduate and a former Hebrew school teacher, I want to see my taxes fund organizations that conform to the values of equality and accountability enshrined in our law.