Faith-based initiative draws ire of opponents

Two pieces of legislation now making their way through the legislature have received strong backing from the religious right, but have raised the hackles of people concerned about separation of church and state.

The first, approved by the Senate Feb. 28, is called the Faith-based Organization Liaison Act. It would require the Social Services Department to designate employees in each region of the state to promote faith-based organizations as operators of state-funded social programs.

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Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois, said the bill was part of a national effort to allow conservative church groups to tap into public financing.

While some in the Jewish community support such measures, she said, they also create a risk that favored religious organizations will get contracts that should be awarded through competitive proposals. Some such groups might not have the skills to provide the social service, but would instead use the contracts as an attempt to proselytize, Aroesty said.

In addition, such groups might discriminate in providing services by showing favoritism toward people who accept their version of faith, she said. That was the situation with a faith-based program in the Iowa prison system that is now the subject of a federal lawsuit pending in the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

“You have to provide these services without discriminating over who gets these services and who provides them,” Aroesty said.

Her points were echoed by critics in the Senate. Sen. Joan Bray, a University City Democrat, said the bill appeared to cross the line separating church and state.

“Why designate a liaison for religious groups and not for all groups who could provide these services?” Bray said. “To spend state resources to seek out religious organizations is wrong.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Rob Mayer of Dexter, said it was needed to tap into the expertise of faith-based groups with local ties and experience dealing with local problems. He pointed out that state officials estimated that the change would not cost the state money because the bill’s requirements could be met with existing staff.

Faith-based groups, Mayer said, would still have to show they had the qualifications to provide the services. He said the regional liaisons were needed to overcome government resistance to faith-based groups playing a role.

“I want these organizations to know they are wanted,” Mayer said. “Most of them can certainly help with senior citizens who have nutrition problems or need transportation to health care. But in smaller communities, faith-based organizations are not aware of the need.”

Aroesty said most faith groups that provide social services do so under corporate structures separate from their worship functions. Legislation that encourages churches to offer such services directly increases the chance of discrimination in those services, she said.

“Violations of church-state separation undermine religious freedom, they don’t enhance it,” Aroesty said.

The second bill, approved by a House committee Feb. 27, is a seen by many as more insidious because they see it as an attack on the entire notion of higher education. The measure, House Bill 213, suggests that its purpose is to ensure “intellectual diversity” on college campuses and that its goal is to expose students to “a variety of political, ideological, religious and other perspectives.”

“It appears benign at first glance, but it opens the door to manipulation,” Aroesty said. “Universities are already in the intellectual diversity business.”

The bill would require state universities to issue an annual report on how it promotes intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas on campus. The bill suggests a list of items to be included in the report, such as how the university handles intellectual diversity issues in student evaluations of professors; how intellectual diversity is reflected in teaching and program development; and how tenure is not affected by viewpoint discrimination.

Perhaps most controversial is a provision that suggests the university include a section on how the school ensures that “conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments that may contradict such beliefs can be resolved…without requiring a student to act against his or her conscience.”

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jane Cunningham of Chesterfield, is named in honor of a Missouri State University student who refused to sign a letter lobbying for the right of gay couples to adopt children. The student testified that she had no way to avoid the assignment on the subject, which violated her beliefs. She sued and later received an out-of-court settlement.

Cunningham said her bill was necessary because university students deserved “instruction, not indoctrination.”

Critics of the requirement said the bill would politicize universities and squelch academic freedom. They said universities are supposed to challenge students’ values and preconceptions, not merely reinforce existing ideas.

Aroesty agreed, saying the bill would create an opportunity for faith-based groups to complain that their points of view should be part of the university curriculum.

“This is a way for them to get these cases into court based on a failure to accommodate a religious viewpoint or for not accommodating a student’s religious observance,” Aroesty said.