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An Interview with Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott

Posted: August 14, 2002


Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott


In its continuing series of interviews on the issue of faith-based social service initiatives, the Roundtable spoke with U.S. Representative Robert "Bobby" Scott (D-VA), a leading opponent of Charitable Choice legislation. In 1992, Rep. Scott became only the second African-American from Virginia to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and he is the first African-American to be elected since "Reconstruction." He serves on the Education and Workforce Committee and the Judiciary Committee, where he is the leading Democrat on its Crime Subcommittee. Prior to Congress, he served in the Virginia Legislature from 1978 to 1993, and practiced law in Newport News, Va. from 1973 until 1991. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School.

The Roundtable:

You’ve been a leading opponent to charitable choice language in proposed legislation. What do you think are the problems with charitable choice?

Congressman Scott:

The first problem is that you can’t get a straight answer from anyone about the legislative intent of what charitable choice means. There are basically three questions that we’ve had trouble getting answers to:

First, can you directly fund a church? It’s a threshold question. Can the government write the check to the church? The establishment clause raises some questions about that. The recent Supreme Court voucher decision maintains the distinction between the indirect grant, where you write the check to the student and the student decides where to attend school, and contracting directly with the religious school.

The next question, which is really a trick question, is: Can you proselytize during the government-funded program? It’s a trick question because if they ever get around to answering that, the basis for charitable choice collapses as unnecessary. If you can proselytize during a program, then you are directly funding an organization whose purpose is to convert people to their religion. I think when people are faced with that question, they say, “No, that’s not a good idea.”

The House bill (HR7) actually answered the question. No proselytizing, no religious worship, no religious instruction during the government program. It’s a pretty straightforward prohibition.

The final question is: Can you discriminate during employment with the federal money? Is it legal to require a person to belong to the church? Can you hire everyone you want except certain religions? Under normal federal regulations and laws, you cannot. Under charitable choice, is it legal or not? Every legislative version of charitable choice up to this point has included a specific provision that you may discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. There are people who believe that only hiring our own is a good thing. That’s what charitable choice is. The reason you can’t get a straight answer to simple, fundamental questions is once you start asking those questions, it gets exposed for what it is.

The Senate introduced a bill that ignores these questions. They said they took the controversial language out, but they didn’t speak to proselytizing and discrimination. The questions don’t evaporate. Just answer the question – what is your intent? The evasive answers basically become insulting. They want to pull the wool over your eyes, and use a little smoke and mirrors. Then when the bill passes, they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that” or “Well, if they don’t proselytize enough for people to complain then we’ll just leave it like that.”

Now, the unfortunate thing for the supporter