Peter Steinfels of the NYTimes has read and analyzed Senator Obama’s speech proposing to increase funding of church charities as is done by President Bush’s “faith based initiatives”.

The original report was hopeful (NYTIMES LINK). The first part sounded hopeful:

In embracing the same general approach as Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama ran the political risk of alienating those of his supporters who would prefer that government keep its distance from religion.

But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes:

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

Many religious bodies serve anyone, and usually do not require you to sit through a sermon or prayer to get their services. But unlike Bush’s program, which allowed religious institutions to discriminate in hiring in favor of their own members, Obama’s proposal would mean institutions would have to hire any qualified person for their programs, i.e not discriminating against those of other (or no) faiths, or against those who do not follow the ethical teachings of the church.

That can cause problems at several levels.

One of the reasons people work for religious organizations at lower pay than a secular job is that they have an “esprit de corps”. It means you share values with those you work with without having to worry about ridicule for your faith. Allow “non discrimination”, and you might end up in a hostile work environment.

I only am noting Catholic institutions, since I have worked at Catholic hospitals, so am most familiar with them.

Now, often Catholic social services, hospitals, and schools will hire non Catholics, with the understanding that their employees should know about the church’s teachings and will not ridicule or oppose the beliefs publicly by word or action.
In hospitals, this would mean not allowing physicians to refer for abortions, for example. It might sound “discriminatory” except for the fact that pro life physicians offer suffer discrimination for their beliefs at secular hospitals. For example, I was failed in medical school for refusing to assist with abortions, (and this was before Roe v Wade, and the abortions were theoretically illegal) and had to appeal the grade to the administration. Indeed, I know Hindu and Muslim physicians who chose to train in Obstetrics at Catholic hospitals because of their prolife views and appreciation of the religious atmosphere.

Yet for Catholic hospitals, especially in these days of mergers, there is a lot of pressure on these hospitals to allow abortion or sterilization, including lawsuits etc. This has been going on for at least thirty years, so one tends to worry about being allowed to keep a “religious” identity under any federal law.

But Obama goes farther.

“Non discrimination” clauses have been used to kick boyscouts out of public buildings, and it is only a matter of time until churches start getting sued for discrimination for not hiring out church owned halls to gay marriages or hiring gays to teach children in school.

Similarly, when those working at a Catholic institution ignore church law, be they “Liberal catholics” or non believers, it causes traditional Catholics to be upset.

There is a minor scandal in a Virginia diocese where Catholic social services took an immigrant teenager for an abortion. The bishop, needless to say, was upset:

There are many questions people have — why did it happen? Were there no checks and controls concerning hiring practices? Was there no on-going education and formation in Catholic Christian morality concerning pro-life issues and social justice questions?

The answer, of course, is no, there are few “checks and balances” in a lot of diocese groups: It is a dirty little secret that too many bishops were busy and trusted the “middle management” to do these things, when every lay person in the diocese was aware that the “middle management” was ignoring pedophile priests (they “just needed treatment”), priests cruising the local gay bars, nuns teaching our children heresy, destroying historic church interiors in the name of “reform” and Catholic newspapers that ridiculed traditional catholics while printing article after article about the “latest” fad in theology.

It is only in recent years that things are starting to turn around, but with the opportunity of government money to help the poor, how many will have the courage to turn down gifts with strings?

So as Steinfels points out, insisting on “non discrimination in hiring” will widen the ability of government to intrude not only in the faith based initiatives, but could result in increased government scrutiny of religious institutions ability to “discriminate”, leading to complete defunding of religious services that previously had been partially supported with government funds.

Add in the old conflicts over abortion and new ones over same-sex relationships, and today even longstanding government interactions with venerable religious charities, educational institutions and medical providers can no longer be taken for granted.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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