The Magazine

The New York Times
versus Religion

So much nonsense in a four-part series.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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ON SUNDAY, October 8, the "public editor" of the New York Times, Byron Calame, criticized Times reporter Linda Greenhouse for a speech she delivered last June at Harvard. Greenhouse, described by Calame as the paper's "much-honored Supreme Court reporter for 28 years," preached to the liberal choir in Cambridge about "law-free zones at Guantánamo Bay . . . the U.S. Congress, whatever," the government's "assault on women's reproductive freedom," and "the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism." Writing on the op-ed page, Calame noted that, thanks to her "straightforward" reporting, Greenhouse begets few complaints to his office. But he gently reminded "the influential Supreme Court reporter" that she has "an overriding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions." In reply to Calame, Greenhouse defended her Harvard remarks as "statements of fact" that would be allowed by the Times in a news article.

Indeed. On the very day that it slapped Greenhouse's wrist, the paper launched "In God's Name: Favors for the Faithful," a four-part series on religion in America. The story line: "Pervasively sectarian" religious organizations across America are now awash in federal funds and regulatory exemptions. Or, as Greenhouse might have put it, public policy has been hijacked by religious fundamentalism.

The research that went into the article was what Calame might call "straightforward." A Times "computer analysis" of post-1989 federal laws turned up "more than 200 provisions granting accommodations or protections specifically to religious groups." The ostensibly faith-favoring laws covered "topics from taxes to immigration to education." The article's subheading was "From Day Care Centers to Use of Land, Rules Don't Apply to Faith Groups."

The computer analysis turned up 22 "social services" religious exemptions, including one that the story highlighted, "the landmark 'Charitable Choice' provision in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996." Apparently, however, the "analysis" did not extend to actually reading the provision, parsing cognate regulations, or carefully examining how the relevant laws have been implemented or ignored.

The Times describes the laws as allowing "pervasively religious groups to get federal contracts to provide social services without altering their character or governance." Actually, the "Religious Organizations" section of the 1996 Charitable Choice provision explicitly stated that faith groups could "accept certificates, vouchers, or other forms of disbursement," but only "on the same basis as any other nongovernmental pro vider" and "without diminishing the religious freedom of beneficiaries of assistance funded under such program." By the same token, the 1996 federal law's "Limitations on Use of Funds for Certain Purposes" section specifically forbade any religious organization from expending any public funds "for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization."

Besides, whatever federal legal "exemptions" faith-based organizations do enjoy might be trumped by state laws. As the 1996 provision explicitly stated, nothing in the federal law "shall be construed to preempt any provision of a State constitution or State statute that prohibits or restricts the expenditure of State funds in or by religious organizations."

Because most federal grants are administered via block grants to the states, because no adequate intergovernmental data systems exist to follow the money, and because state laws and regulations governing church-state collaboration vary, it is difficult to generalize meaningfully about government partnerships with religious nonprofits. Several state-by-state studies suggest that more state government contracts are being awarded to religious nonprofits that perform vital social services. But these grants are subject to often onerous state laws and regulations restricting the use of public funds for religious activities.

Times readers might be interested to know that most state constitutions single out "faith groups" for special legal burdens and restrictions. About two-thirds of state constitutions have a generic no public funding clause. And most have a specific no funding for religious education clause. As University of Chicago law scholar Philip Hamburger summarized in his book Separation of Church and State, many such antireligion state constitutional provisions have their political roots in rabidly anti-Catholic 19th-century nativist movements.