I was discussing the President’s faith-based charity initiative with a rather liberal friend a few days ago. I made the claim that religious neutrality implied that if the government is going to provide funding for nominally private charity groups, then it has to provide funding for both secular and religious charities. To do otherwise would seem to constitute a form of discrimination against religion.

My friend’s main objection to that was the concern that religious charities would proselytize under the cover of charity. The act of preaching during charity is certainly not unknown; for many years the Salvation Army did this sort of thing in its soup kitchens. They’d feed you, but you had to listen to the sermon. At first blush, I thought this was a reasonable objection. On further consideration, though, I’m not so sure.

It seems to me that the essential objection here involves a mixing of material charity with ideological content. You get soup, but you also get the message that Jesus Saves. And although it may be OK for the government to subsidize the soup, it would be unconstitutional for it to subsidize the message. Or would it?

Are other charities barried from pushing secular ideas as part of their charitable activities? Would it be obviously wrong to mix soup with a message of multicultural tolerance, or environmental awareness, or drug rehabilitation, or some other non-religious ideational content? This seems like an innocuous question, but it really isn’t.

The problem is that if it is OK for charities to mix the presentation of ideas in with their provision of material charity (and I think it should be; a key component of successful charity involves addressing spiritual needs, and that is an inherently intellectual/idea-based process), then allowing secular ideas to be presented but not religious ones constitutes a form of discrimination against religion. Religious neutrality implies that religious ideas should be treated as equivalent to secular ones — no better, and no worse.

This approach to religious neutrality and the spreading of ideas was upheld in the recent school voucher case Zelman v. Harris, and I think it applies equally in the case of charities. As long as the criteria used to select charities for funding are genuinely neutral, I don’t think there’s a constitutional issue here.

(There is the broader question of whether the government should be involved in this sort of thing at all, but that’s another post.)

2 Responses to “Religious Neutrality (repost)”
  1. Aaron Priven says:

    Congress is not prohibited from establishing a secular philosophy as a state philosophy, but it is prohibited from establishing a religion as a state religion. It may or may not be that subsidizing a religious message in this way amounts to the “establishment” of a religion, but clearly there is a distinction here between secular and non-secular messages.

    I have no idea why I’m writing this. Hi Anne and Kyle!

  2. Percy Jane says:

    I love your site. It´s really a pleasure to read through all this interesting stuff and it home.

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