WASHINGTON, July 26 (JTA) The issue of charitable choice has been discussed in Congress and in presidential campaigns, and now it’s in the courts.
In what is being called the first known constitutional challenge to a charitable choice contract and statute, the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit Monday against a social services program in Texas, saying the jobs program used tax funds to support religious practices in violation of the constitutional separation between church and state.
The Jobs Partnership of Washington County in Brenham, Texas, is alleged to have used state funds to proselytize, buy Bibles and force participants to accept Jesus.
Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, called the program “fairly egregious.”
“This program stands out because the religious programming is essential,” Stern said.
Charitable choice, passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform, allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts. Many Jewish groups oppose charitable choice programs because of the threat to church-state separation and potential religious coercion and employment discrimination.
The Jobs Partnership had a contract with the state Department of Human Services, though the one-year grant has actually expired.
Chris Traylor, a spokesman for the department, said the agency had not received any complaints about the program. Under the charitable choice statute if program participants object to the religious character of an organization providing them with assistance, the state is required to provide an alternative.
Traylor said that the grant money was intended strictly for the provision of social services.
“We are very clear that no state expenditures have as their objective the funding of sectarian worship, instruction or proselytizing,” he said.
The department contracts with 130 community-based organizations, some of which are religious institutions. The department’s Web site says charitable choice is “expanding the involvement of faith-based and community organizations in the public self-sufficiency effort while protecting the rights of beneficiaries and service organizations.”
Traylor said the department plans to examine the case closely.
AJCongress says the program convinces students of the need to “change from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, and that can only be accomplished through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The organizations are petitioning the court to declare the contract unconstitutional and to order the jobs program to return the money it received.
The lawsuit also asks that Texas be prohibited from entering into other programs that “promote religious doctrine or engage in religious discrimination in employment” and to invalidate the federal charitable choice statute.
“In charitable choice programs, you can’t indoctrinate or proselytize but you can use religion in the programming,” Stern said. “How can you have both?”
Stern says it is a coincidence that the case stems from a program in Texas, the home state of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, and that the organization is investigating other programs in New York and California for church-state violations.
Both Bush and his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, support charitable choice programs.