By Ciro Scotti Instead of walking on water toward a new era of privately delivered social services, George W. Bush's faith-based initiative looks dead in the water.
On Aug. 17, John J. DiIulio Jr., head of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, resigned after only seven months on the job, slipping out of the town that had battered his good intentions. The timing was certainly peculiar -- the announcement came on one of the doggiest of the dog days of summer 2001. August is always a sleepy news month, but this resignation seemed to have been designed to attract as little attention as possible.
DiIulio's resignation highlights an irony: The President's efforts to funnel more federal money into the charitable work of religious organizations may ultimately lead to less involvement in social services by religious groups -- to the detriment of the poor and needy. Don't just take it from me. That's what an official from the Salvation Army says.
"POLITICAL FODDER." The resignation makes the future of Bush's so-called compassionate conservatism look grim indeed. Before its August recess, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill encouraging the inclusion of religious groups in the bidding process for federally backed social programs. But similar legislation now faces an uphill climb in the Democrat-controlled Senate -- and that's being charitable.
DiIulio, a Catholic, a Democrat, and a professor of government at the University of Pennsylvania, reportedly ran into a buzz saw on the Religious Right and clashed with White House aides. Perhaps the biggest setback, though, was a Washington Post story on July 10 alleging that the Salvation Army had entered into a quid pro quo with the Bush Administration: The story claimed that the Salvation Army had offered to help push the faith-based initiative if the White House issued a regulation protecting charities from local laws that bar discrimination against gays and lesbians in hiring and mandate benefits for same-sex partners.
Major George Hood, a spokesman for the Salvation Army, denies that there was ever any deal. Instead, he says, the Bush Administration asked the Army and other religious groups providing charitable services to identify barriers that would prevent them from accepting public money to expand their programs. "We were used for political fodder by the press," Hood says.
The major maintains that of the Salvation Army's 45,000 employees, "none has ever been asked: 'What is your sexual orientation?' We have homosexuals who work for us all across the country...and they are wonderful employees. What they do in their private life is their own business."
AT A CROSSROADS. However, Major Hood says, the Salvation Army made clear to the Bush Administration that it views rules in some cities and states that require organizations using public funds to extend benefits to same-sex partners as a potential impediment to the faith-based initiative. While the Salvation Army receives more private contributions than any other single charity in the country, it is first and foremost a Protestant church. "Heart to God, hand to man," says the major.
As a church, the Salvation Army has struggled with same-sex-partner benefits for years: Would granting such benefits mean that the church is recognizing a union that violates its spiritual tenets? Along the same lines, the Salvation Army does not extend benefits to the opposite-sex partners of unmarried employees. "The issue is symbolic of the great cultural divide that is going on these days," says Major Hood.
The Salvation Army receives almost $300 million in federal funds a year, but Hood says that all the negative publicity and the increasingly onerous burden of complying with government rules has put the church/charity at a crossroads. Can it continue to provide social services and remain true to its beliefs?
Four years ago, the City of San Francisco decided to withhold a $3 million contract with the Salvation Army until it extended benefits to same-sex partners. The Army asked for an exemption. When it was denied, "We chose to walk away," Major Hood says. The city still hasn't found a replacement, he adds. And the program the Salvation Army wasn't allowed to administer in the City by the Bay was to provide food for homeless victims of AIDS. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online