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An Interview with Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

Posted: June 17, 2002

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler is a fifth-term Democrat representing sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York. He serves on the House Judiciary Committee and is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on the Constitution. During his tenure in Washington, Congressman Nadler has focused his attention on civil rights, civil liberties, transportation, access to health care and the expansion of Social Security. Prior to his election to Congress, he served 16 years in the New York State Assembly.

The Roundtable:

Please give us your assessment of President Bush’s faith-based initiative?

Congressman Nadler:

I helped lead the opposition to the faith-based bill in the House, HR7.  There were a number of bill provisions that were fine. A provision that says taxpayers who do not itemize their returns can get a charitable deduction is fine. The problem is the so-called "charitable choice" provision.  I believe this provision is flatly unconstitutional from a first amendment point of view in terms of separation of church and state.

The [Bush] administration’s propaganda is that federal departments discriminate against faith-based groups in handing out federal money for providing social services. I doubt that’s true. But if it is true, the obvious solution is that George Bush should tell the agencies not to discriminate. You don’t need legislation for that.

Secondly, plenty of federal money is spent through faith-based groups including Catholic Charities, Jewish Federation, and Lutheran Social Services for all kinds of different social services. They all operate through 501 (c)(3) non-profit groups that are affiliated with the church. And that’s crucial. What this bill would do is to enable federal money to be granted directly to the church as opposed to its 501 (c)(3) [organization].

The Supreme Court has always ruled that direct federal grants to pervasively sectarian institutions are inherently unconstitutional. And although the current Supreme Court might not rule that way, 200 years of history says that’s a very good precedent to follow. You don’t want federal money going directly to churches because part of it will inevitably be spent on proselytizing and religion. Government money should not be spent on that. 

It’s one thing to enlist the assistance of faith-based groups. But it’s another thing to say that faith-based social services are superior to any other social service because by implicating faith in God, Jesus or Allah, you will motivate people to get off drugs. It may be true that the motivation and faith helps some people get off drugs, but government should not fund implicating belief in God, Jesus or Allah.

With federal money comes federal regulation and auditing. I don’t think the religious organizations want some federal auditor asking, “Why are you paying the pastor so much money?”  Separation of church and state is really to protect religion from government, not the other way around.

Another problem is sectarian-based competition. One of the most contentious fights in Congress that happens every few years centers on allocation formulas.  We don’t need allocation fights as to how much do the Methodists get, how much do the Jews get, and how much do the Catholics get. That kind of thing could tear our country apart.

Another basic problem is that pervasively sectarian institutions are exempt, as they should be, from the discrimination in employment statute of the Civil Rights Act. When a 501 (c)(3) gets federal money to run a homeless shelter, they are not exempt from the statute. They cannot use federal money and say no Catholics or Jews can apply for a job ladli