Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1

Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

McCaughey Babies

Islam in Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal


Missing the Boat on Charitable Choice

by David Weiner

Over the past three years, reporters have produced literally thousands of stories on the landmark 1996 federal welfare reform law-the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. But Section 104-a key provision that significantly reduced the separation of church and state at the behest of Republican reformers-flew in under the media’s radar.

Altogether, major newspapers, wire services, broadcast networks, and magazines ran a scant 30 pieces on this "charitable choice" section, with a miniscule three articles published in the period before the bill’s passage. The sole substantial piece published prior to passage appeared in USA Today nine months before final legislative action. And Cathy Lynn Groomsman’s 465-word story, headlined "Lawyers not swayed by ‘Charitable Choice’," appeared deep in the paper on page 11D.

Charitable choice gives religious organizations the right to compete for state social service contracts, even if their programs are distinctly sectarian. It allows states to distribute welfare money to churches, mosques, and synagogues to provide services just as long as the money is not spent for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." It also permits the hiring of staff on the basis of religious tests.

The bill’s first anniversary in the fall of 1997 spurred a handful of reporters to examine charitable choice more carefully. They uniformly identified it as significant legislation and provided well-balanced and probing coverage of the web of issues associated with the law. Jan Ferris of the Sacramento Bee, for example, reported on November 4 that "unprecedented overhaul of the nation’s welfare laws has prompted county lean on the religious community like never before."

Most of these articles focused on the array of perceived risks to both the recipients and religious groups, including entanglement of church and state, the lack of a clear definition of proselytization, accountability problems, and the creation of safety-net loopholes for welfare recipients. In a USA Today commentary on Sep-tember 3, 1997, Stephen Burger argued: "The new law allows faith-based charities to retain ‘control over the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious belief.’ However, the devil (if you will) is in the details. A ‘limitations’ clause states that ‘no funds provided directly to institutions or organizations to provide services...shall be expended for sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization.’ Now, what exactly does that mean?"

Such exceptions notwithstanding, the coverage of charitable choice has not been sufficient to register even a blip on the radar screen of public awareness. Worse, nearly two years after the fact, few local governments and religious organizations are yet aware of federal policy changes that could drastically alter the ways they function.