As Vice President Al Gore prepares to officially launch his presidential campaign next week, his “charitable choice” initiative has sparked much concern in the Jewish community, as well as a $200,000 project to study the controversial proposal.
Responding to Gore’s plan to expand federal funding of social services provided by religious groups, the American Jewish Committee is beginning a study in a long-shot attempt to span “the unbridgeable” gap between staunch defenders of the separation of church and state and advocates of the Gore plan.
“It’s the hottest issue right now,” said Stephen Steinlight, AJCommittee’s director of national affairs, who will help coordinate the 18-month project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Speaking about Gore’s “new partnership” between government and religion, Steinlight said: “We are fearful that public funding will subsidize discrimination in hiring, result in religious coercion of employees and service recipients, fund extremist and racist groups, and will diminish the independence of religious institutions as they bow to increasing government interference in their affairs.”
Gore, seeking momentum for his presidential bid, triggered the debate last month during a speech at a Salvation Army drug rehabilitation center. He praised groups like Christ House and Christian Women’s Job Corps for providing some of the most effective programs dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental illness because of their religious background.
Gore, a Southern Baptist, called for exploring “carefully tailored partnerships with our faith community, so we can use the approaches that are working best.”
His initiative essentially would expand conservative Republican Sen. John Ashcroft’s charitable choice provision of the 1996 welfare law that allows government money to fund faith-based groups helping to move people from welfare to work.
Steinlight told The Jewish Week the AJCommittee study, culminating in a major conference in Washington, will bring together Evangelical and Baptist groups who support charitable choice with opponents in an effort to find common ground.
Steinlight stressed the project, being conducted with Temple University’s Feinstein Center of American Jewish History, does not mean a shift in the AJCommittee’s historic advocacy for church-state separation.
“We’re not signaling a change of position, we’re signaling thought,” he insisted.
The project will convene top constitutional lawyers, historians and religious groups such as the National Council of Churches. “Our thought is bringing together classic antagonists over a long period of time. If we can find some common ground … perhaps we can agree on some set of principles,” Steinlight said.
But, he added, “As I look at the issues at stake, I’m doubtful we will achieve that. But at least it’s worth an attempt … [to] delineate the differences that remain unbridgeable.”
Murray Friedman of Temple University said the project is an outgrowth of “a new national discussion that is emerging about what is appropriate and what is constitutional in the way government involves itself in the public arena.”
The Jewish community is caught in a “critical” conflict, he said. “All Jewish agencies are on the side of helping urban areas. On the other hand, we have a traditional posture of the strong separation of church and state.”
Opposition to Gore’s proposal is coming from secular Jewish organizations such as United Jewish Communities and the Anti-Defamation League, while politically conservative Orthodox groups support the plan.
Marc Stern, a constitutional law expert with the American Jewish Congress, said the Gore proposal is more disturbing for what it says about the state of political thinking in the Gore campaign than charitable choice itself.
“I think what is problematic is that an idea that stems from the Evangelical Christian side of the spectrum, Gore and his advisers find to be politically expedient,” Stern said.
“It says something of where we are with church-state separation and how little public support [Gore’s advisers] think it seems to have.”
Another critic, the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called Gore’s policy proposal “an alarming alteration of the careful balance between church and state.”
Its associate director, Mark Pelavin, said Gore’s history as a champion of the separation of church and state makes his proposal “so puzzling, and so troubling.”
Pelavin said he is concerned the proposal raises the prospect of government funds being used for proselytizing, and divisive competition for funds among America’s 2,000 religious denominations, “competition which is harmful in itself, and is exacerbated by the fact that minority religions would, inevitably, lose out.”
Supporting Gore are national organizations such as the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America and the centrist Orthodox Union.
“That your endorsement of a greater role for religious entities in addressing social problems is deemed controversial is a sad commentary on the harmful rigidity that so often characterizes church-state rhetoric,” Agudah executive vice president David Zwiebel wrote in a letter to Gore.
The OU wrote: “There exists an even greater potential for building a better society if faith-based institutions are invited into this enterprise because, as you said, ‘Faith works.’ ”
Political observers said Gore’s proposal was designed to set him apart from President Clinton and bring him close enough to his opponents — chiefly Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Bradley — to neutralize any debate on social values.
One Jewish political operative noted that the Clinton administration has opposed such an initiative for several years. Another contended that in trying to win over religious conservatives and prove he is not in the pocket of liberal Jews, Gore would not lose any Jewish votes on this issue.
In his announcement, Gore insisted that no government-funded program would “promote a religious view or try to force anyone to receive religion” and that secular alternatives would be available.
Gore offered a pledge to the clergy and community activists gathered at the Salvation Army: “If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration.”
Gore said he believes in the separation of church and state three times during the speech. But Terri Schroeder, a First Amendment legal analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said his plan raises troubling questions.
“How can we have any accountability for how our money is spent given the traditional separation of church and state?” Schroeder asked. “How can a religious institution counsel without proselytizing? How can you provide juvenile services without some level of coercion?”
One group forced into an uncomfortable position by Gore is the National Jewish Democratic Council, which has opposed charitable choice programs in the past.
NJDC spokesman Stephen Silberfarb said Gore’s promises that the program will pass constitutional muster “deserve to be taken at face value.”
Asked about constituent reaction, spokesman Jason Silberberg said Monday, “There’s no major revolt under way.”