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.
Accompanying the Times article was a photo of an African-American woman holding a child on her lap in a rocking chair. The woman runs child care centers in Alabama that "must comply with many laws and regulations" from which "religious organizations providing the same services have been exempted." The bold-lettered caption beneath the picture: "No Exemption Available."
The picture is worth a thousand biased words. The implication is that faith-based social service organizations are getting a big leg up on their secular counterparts. The truth is far more complicated. A radically different picture emerges from empirical studies about how faith-based organizations serve the urban minority poor.
The most important social service organizations in many low-income urban communities are black churches. In big-city America, black churches and their affiliated nonprofit groups lead other organizations, both secular and religious, in at least four ways: average levels of service provision to the needy; propensity to locate among and serve the most acutely needy populations; outreach to severely at-risk neighborhood youth and other nonmembers; and willingness to partner with other religious groups, secular organizations, and government agencies. Despite having zero public funds and little or no foundation support, black religious nonprofits tend to provide higher levels of many social services, including, but not limited to, education, health care, economic development, and, yes, child care.
Or consider the evidence on who serves the poor when it comes to scores of other social services including welfare-to-work programs. A multiyear study by Calvin College political scientist Stephen Monsma examined welfare-to-work programs in four big cities (Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles). In each city, the services were supplied via a mix of government agencies, for-profit firms, large secular nonprofits with professional staff, local secular groups with volunteer staff, and assorted religious congregations and grassroots religious nonprofits.
In Philadelphia, for example, the study found that about 40 percent of all organizations supplying the services were faith-based. To characterize them as "pervasively sectarian" would be silly since the vast majority served beneficiaries, recruited volunteers, and hired paid staff all without regard to religion. On average, across the four cities in the study, faith-based groups served about 200 clients on budgets of roughly $90,000 a year, while secular ones served about 400 clients, but on budgets of roughly $900,000 a year (twice the clients for ten times the money). The secular groups were much more likely to receive public money than the faith groups were, and their average government grants were significantly larger, too. The faith groups were also more likely to serve poor minority citizens who had the fewest years of formal schooling, the worst job histories, or both.
Faith-based federal politics and pandering is one thing, but what the federal government actually does vis-à-vis religious nonprofits is another. The most recent empirical study, by scholars at SUNY-Albany's Rockefeller Institute, suggests that, if anything, the amount of federal money going to religious nonprofits has declined over the last few years. There is more than one way to measure that flow, and I suspect that funding has actually increased somewhat. But whatever the funding trend, there is no evidence to indicate that politically conservative or "pervasively sectarian" groups have received special treatment or won more than their fair share of grants.
The second installment of "In God's Name" focused on 13 "workplace" provisions that the Times characterized as federal "favors for the faithful," which have the effect of "limiting workers' rights." Religious colleges, hospitals, and other organizations supposedly now enjoy carte blanche exemptions from employ ment laws and regulations, dramatizing how "American religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government."
Since 2001, President Bush has signed executive orders expanding the so-called ministerial exemption that, under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent federal laws, affords religious organizations a limited right to take religion into account in hiring. Simply stated, the right is absolute with respect to private funds and worship services, but restricted with respect to public funds and social services. In my view, the new executive orders were unnecessary; but regardless, they have proven toothless, and any efforts to enforce them or other federal "exemptions" would run headlong into contrary black-letter provisions in state constitutions and regulations. For every court decision and anecdote in the story indicating how "accommodating" government has become in employment and related matters, leaders of religious educational, health care, and other faith-based organizations could rattle off contrary decisions and horror stories indicating how adversarial government has been and remains.
Times readers might be invited to imagine an America in which all of those ostensibly favored faith groups disappeared tomorrow. Who would suffer the most, and who would have to pay to replace the social services that they now provide? For instance, pick ten big cities, and ask how many low-income non-Catholics (Title I students, Medicaid-eligible patients, etc.) are served by Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities, and hospitals? Next, try to figure out who is subsidizing or "accommodating" whom: How much would it cost to provide the same services without religiously mobilized volunteers and institutions in the mix? Studies being conducted by me and others at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University aim to estimate the "replacement value" of such Catholic "civic assets." Stay tuned.
The Times also identified 37 "land use and property" laws adopted "to benefit or protect religious property owners." The "favors for the faithful" here included a law raising the criminal penalties for church-burning. More generally, the Times's "analysis" somehow missed the fact that, at a time when more than 50 million Americans live in private homeowner associations (condominiums, cooperatives, gated communities), organized around myriad secular purposes including recreation, and legally afforded ownership restrictions (senior citizens only, no children), religion remains a widely "prohibited category" under federal housing laws.
Similarly, while federal funds finance much art and architecture that is patently offensive to many religious believers, and while federal dollars routinely pay to preserve other historically or architecturally significant properties, grand old churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious properties must go begging. Hurricane Katrina destroyed many sacred places frequented by religious people who were the first to supply basic services to the region's victims. Still, in 2005, Congress barely passed new legislation providing funding to Catholic and other religious schools that had selflessly opened their doors to elementary and secondary students who had been displaced by the floods.
And, as I know from my own travels, in many cities, faith groups that seek to open after-school programs, run shelters, or otherwise serve their needy neighbors are still often kicked to the civic curb by local public housing authorities, state judges, and other government officials. The politics behind these actions is not always pretty. Big secular nonprofits and well-positioned for-profit firms--professional service delivery organizations that for decades have "won" government contracts while avoiding independent performance audits--suddenly be come interested in church-state issues when their oligopolies are threatened by competition from local faith groups. In many cases, the faith groups have been doing the work all along in return for public-funding crumbs from the "professional" groups' tables. Much the same game has too often, and for too long, been played against grassroots religious groups by large private foundations' favorite grantees.
Since leaving the White House, I have made no secret of my sense that, when it comes to public laws and policies on religion in the public square, a few too many Christian leaders let their nightmares be father to their thoughts. This is especially true, for example, with respect to overheated arguments about "Godless schools," and complaints that Charitable Choice laws, complete with their prohibitions on proselytizing and limits on hiring rights, were weak tea brewed to suit the tastes of antireligious liberal Democrats. Despite survey evidence, case studies aplenty, and personal experiences suggesting that most elite national media outlets are home to people far less religious than most Americans, I have always resisted the conclusion that their reporting is systematically biased against religiously observant people and institutions.
The Times, however, has very nearly converted me to that cynical view. By no objective measure is there any reality that could justify its "Religion Trumps Regulation" page-one headline.
Over the last two decades or so, the federal playing field has become less tilted against community-serving faith-based organizations, and more respectful of citizens' free exercise of religious rights. Over the same period, orthodox Christians have asserted themselves in politics in ways that challenge settled ideas about church-state relations and spark deep disagreements even with faith-friendly fellow citizens like me.
The way forward on church-state issues is with honest exchanges of views, from the secular liberal left to the Christian right, conducted in a spirit of mutual civic forbearance. Sadly, the Times prefers to reinforce biases against "the faithful."
Of course, the First Amendment protects not only religious freedom but also press freedom. Still, the Times's claim that government at all levels has relegated secular groups to second-class citizenship status, the better to lavish special benefits on religious people and nonprofits, is not fit to print.
Contributing editor John J. DiIulio Jr. is completing a book on religion and social policy in America. In 2001, he was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.