President-elect George W. Bush’s meeting this week with religious leaders shows he intends to move ahead with his controversial plan to involve religious institutions in social welfare programming.
It also sent a signal about who in the Jewish community he plans to consult on the issue – a signal that some Jewish leaders are not happy about.
Bush’s meeting in Austin included some 30 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders. There he laid out plans to establish a federal Office of Faith-Based Action.
The Jewish representatives at the meeting were Murray Friedman, a conservative thinker who also serves as director of the Mid-Atlantic region of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a Seattle-area based Orthodox rabbi and president of Toward Tradition.
The early timing of the meeting suggests Bush’s desire to make so-called charitable choice programs a priority.
Charitable choice, passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts in areas such as drug counseling and job training.
“I’m afraid we’ll hear a lot of it in the next four years,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religious liberties.
Lynn calls the establishment of a federal office “outrageous,” and anticipates many lawsuits will emerge challenging the religious-based programming.
The Jewish community remains divided on the role of faith-based organizations in public policy.
Most Jewish organizations worry about violations of church-state separation, as well as the possibility that such programs could involve proselytizing and coercion.
But others want to give synagogues and Jewish organizations more of a role and a chance at more funding.
Friedman, who is working on a project with a number of religious groups to study charitable choice, said he conveyed to Bush the concerns of some in the Jewish community about religious intrusion in the public arena.
Bush told the group that his plan would not fund churches, just the services that the churches perform, said Friedman, who also is director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Friedman said he senses the Jewish community is nervous about the issue but he encourages Jewish groups to enter the discussion.
Lapin, the other Jewish participant, said he told Bush the meeting would help “to undo the epidemic of secularism that was unleashed in America eight years ago.”
Lapin said that having a Jew in charge of the Office of Faith-Based Action would help downplay any fears that such an office was intended to “Christianize” America.
Stephen Goldsmith, the former Jewish mayor of Indianapolis who served as a key domestic adviser in the Bush campaign, is thought to be Bush’s choice to head up the office.
By placing religious values at the core of the incoming administration, Bush will do a great deal to help unify the country, Lapin said at the meeting.
Lapin, known for his involvement in many conservative projects, including a voter registration project led earlier this year by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, said he believes that faith-based social programs have performed much better than their secular counterparts.
But opponents of charitable choice say there is little evidence to show that.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that strengthening religious institutions is necessary, but churches, synagogues and mosques should not be the “be all and end all solutions” to social ills.
Foxman expressed dismay at the Jewish representation at the meeting.
The American Jewish community and its views were not represented, he said, adding that the ADL is writing to Bush to ask for a meeting on this issue.
Orthodox Jewish groups say the whole concept of religious organizations running social programs is nothing new.
For example, the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America runs many housing, job training and drug counseling programs through its affiliate for community services and the affiliate is substantially subsidized by government funds.
David Zwiebel, the group’s executive vice president for government and public affairs, said the new federal office could lay down precise guidelines that will address the church-state issues.
By running programs through a central office, Zwiebel said, “there will be greater care that the constitutional line is respected.”
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said there are ways to allow faith-based groups to partner with the government and place protections against religious coercion and proselytization.
Both Orthodox organizations said they anticipated Bush would include representatives from the organized Jewish community in future discussions.