By David Waters
Should the federal government pay for a Bible-based sex education program? What if the program instructed youth that “God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm”? What if it urged them to memorize and recite Psalm 119:9 (“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word”)? What if it was funded by the State Department to help villages in AIDS-ravaged Africa?
What seems like a clear violation of church and state separation here in America gets murky overseas. Does church-state separation apply to U.S. government’s policies and programs in other countries? Is our foreign policy bound by the First Amendment?
Those questions were raised this week in a major report issued by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Uncertainty surrounding the limits of (church-state separation) appears to be impeding foreign policy in some significant ways,” stated the report, which is urging the Obama administration to make religion ‘integral’ to American foreign policy.
That uncertainty was reflected in the report itself, which concluded that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause “does impose constraints” on what the U.S. can do overseas. But five task force members dissented, saying “no administration should impose constraints on American foreign policy that are imagined to derive” from the clause. Five others disagreed with that: “A conclusion that clause never applies is not supportable.”
The American Civil Liberties Union supports that last statement. This week, the ACLU sued the U.S. Agency for International Development for its “religiously infused” abstinence programs funded by the agency, such as the Bible-based program in Africa. “The United States government cannot be in the business of exporting religiously infused abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that we know fail to give young people the information they need to stay healthy,” ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri told Religion News Service.
Concerns about USAID faith-based programs were raised last year by the agency’s inspector general, which audited USAIDS’s 2006-2007 contracts totaling $1.4 million with 136 faith-based organizations. The audit found that some funds were used to rebuild Iraqi mosques and promote Bible-based sexual abstinence programs in Africa, despite a prohibition on the use of taxpayer funds to support “inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction or proselytization.”
USAID officials offered two interesting defenses. First, they argued that the main goals of the programs in Africa and Iraq were secular in nature. For example, USAID argued that the mosque repairs were aimed at gaining political support and providing jobs for unemployed Iraqi youths.
Give me 10 minutes and I could find 10 inner-city pastors who could make the same case for their American churches.
As for the Bible-based abstinence lessons, USAID officials said that “such religious references can improve the effectiveness of an activity’s non-religious purpose, such as preventing the spread of HIV.”
Give me 10 minutes and I could find 10 evangelical pastors who could make the same case about sexual abstinence programs in public schools.
The second defense was even more interesting. According to the auditors, USAID officials “were unsure whether such uses of Agency funding violated Agency regulations or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
And we’re back to murky.
The auditors recommended that USAID ask the Obama administration to clarify “what religious activities USAID may or may not fund overseas without violating the Establishment Clause.”
That won’t be easy. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter, and a rare and related appellate court ruling was, well, murky. As Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted, in 1991 the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a USAID plan to spend millions to build religious schools in Israel and other nations. But the ruling left open the possibility that in some rare cases, the government might be able to justify tax aid to religious institutions overseas, if it can prove a “compelling” need to do so.
Preventing the spread of HIV and gaining political support in Iraq sound pretty compelling.
Obama’s faith advisory council, which has spent the past year going over all of the government’s faith-based operations, has taken a creative approach to bringing clarity to the murkiness: Replace the phrase “inherently religious” — which is so misunderstood — with the phrase “explicitly religious.”
“The Administration, therefore, should amend regulations and the relevant executive order to prohibit the use of direct aid to subsidize ‘explicitly religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization.’”
Clear as mud.
Note: Rob Boston works Americans United for Separation of Church and State, not for the ACLU. Thanks for pointing that out, Ex-Virginian4.