John the Catalyst

It all started with a Mississippi witch. The Salvation Army hired a woman for a state-funded domestic-violence program, discovered she practiced Wicca (the pre-Christian earth religion known as witchcraft) and fired her. She sued (in 1989, in U.S. District Court) and won. U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) was appalled.

He went on to craft his own spell: charitable-choice legislation that would give religious groups full freedom to hire, fire and conduct programs as their values dictated, regardless of government funding. Julie A. Segal, legislative counsel at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, followed his progress closely. In "A 'Holy Mistaken Zeal': The Legislative History and Future of Charitable Choice," she chronicles the provision's awkward spin through the welfare whirlpool -- its surprising buoyance every time a Democrat tried to drown it -- and its implications. "The devil," she believes, "is very much in the details."

Details like federally funded job discrimination, unmonitorable evangelizing, unexplained rights. Whatever made U.S. legislators agree to this? Ashcroft was unavailable for comment. But in Segal's opinion, he clinched victory when he announced that he'd "spoken to President Clinton about it personally" and that Clinton's subsequent State of the Union address had urged America "to enlist the help of charitable and religious organizations to provide social services to our poor and needy citizens." Of course, Clinton wasn't talking about funding those organizations. But the link was made. So on July 23, 1996 -- the last possible day for the Senate to consider the welfare-reform bill, just moments before the final vote -- Ashcroft filed a motion to waive the rules and take a "procedural vote" on charitable choice. It passed.

Clinton couldn't have been too enamored, because he promptly made a "technical correction," a last-ditch attempt to narrow the scope to "religiously affiliated organizations that are not pervasively sectarian." Ashcroft objected; he wanted to include all religious organizations, not just the sanitized and coolly detached ones. Clinton capitulated.

Since then, Ashcroft has tried to include charitable-choice provisions in every piece of public-health and social-service legislation that's moved through Congress. Technically he hasn't succeeded yet, but the mood's right. There's talk of funding religious programs in schools, and the federal Housing and Urban Development agency has set up a special Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships, headed by a Jesuit priest. Back home, state Sen. Steve Ehlmann (R-St. Charles) has proposed Senate Bill 44 to give community and religious contractors even more latitude, allowing them to charge fees and impose additional requirements on participants.

Before we "let go and let God," we might want to pray -- privately or collectively -- for a bit more guidance.

Segal's essay appears in Welfare Reform and Faith-Based Organizations, a book published this month by the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

-- Jeannette Batz

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