George W. Bush has emphasized that his administration will not try to control or limit the independence of religious institutions-and yet, government grants commonly do bring oversight that can take a bite out of liberty. The way out of this dilemma is to distinguish carefully between two types of government grants, formula and discretionary, and then examine the elements of discretionary grants that can create shackles.
Under formula grants, money and resources are provided on the basis of objective, nondiscretionary standards to groups performing defined social services. For example, formula grant programs provide a computer for every given number of students enrolled in a qualified school, or an ultrasound machine for a given number of pregnant women served. Through such programs church and state can be independent but collegial, as opposed to adversarial.
The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of such programs in Mitchell vs. Helms. They are comparable to tax-based support programs in that they limit the governmental function to eligibility certifications and standard audits of objective criteria. As with tax-based programs, formula grant programs do not enhance the discretionary authority of government officials toward religious institutions. They pose little threat to religious liberty.
Discretionary grant programs, on the other hand, do pose a threat. Such programs give government officials great power by allowing them to discriminate subtly and unsubtly among grant applicants. When discretionary grants include overhead contributions that pay for the basic expenses of the sponsoring religious institutions themselves, or for the salaries of preachers or teachers, the threat becomes enormous. That's particularly the case when a program grows from a few "demonstration projects" into a standardized system under which hundreds of thousands of grants are awarded by largely unmonitored mid-level government officials.
Within that perspective, the way Congress should reform "charitable choice" is clear: Discretionary grants to faith-based groups should not pay for overhead costs or the core facilities of an organization. That is the road to dependence on government, with faith-based groups gradually becoming unable to reject the improper demands of funding agencies. Discretionary grants should not pay for the salaries of persons employed by grant-sponsoring churches or church groups in a teaching or decision-making capacity. That is the road to giving government power over key hiring or firing decisions.
Government funds could be used to expand facilities and programs or to improve technology-keeping in mind the benefits of formula rather than discretionary granting. Government grants could pay for a religious organization's child-care facility or basketball court. Some gray areas will always require negotiation, but restricting the use of government funds in this way will make it easier to stipulate that government officials should be unconditionally barred from influencing or dictating the form or frequency of preaching, teaching, and prayer in a faith-based grant program. Government officials should never be permitted to exercise authority over the religious content of such programs.
Such an arrangement should be livable for most Americans, but not for strong church-state separatists. Those who prefer the current ban on any discussion of God in public programs will feel oppressed. So will some who oppose the idea of government, as it makes it possible for Christian anti-poverty groups to do more, also helping Jewish or Islamic ones to do more.
Opposition may also come from libertarians who believe that government grantmaking in social policy areas should be eliminated completely. But, given the political realities, the question needs to be asked: As long as grants are made, why should they all go to organizations that pretend God doesn't exist?