Thursday, July 18, 2013

Church, State, and License Plate

When I first heard that Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee cited church-state separation when vetoing a bill for Choose Life license plates, I rolled my eyes. Great, I thought, another politician who thinks "pro-life" and "religious" are synonyms. But when I looked into it further, I changed my mind.

Part of my confusion stemmed from the fact that I am from Florida, where funds from Choose Life plates go to Choose Life Florida, which then distributes the funds to qualified "pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes, or non-profit adoption agencies" within the state. According to Choose Life Florida, over 250 agencies qualify. Other states give to adoption programs only, give to a non-sectarian Right to Life group, or follow the Florida model.

But as it turns out, the Rhode Island legislation would have done something entirely different: the sole charity to receive funds from the Rhode Island Choose Life plates was Care Net, a Christian pregnancy resource center.

Faith-based charities can do some great things, no question. And I have nothing personal against Care Net. But singling out a religious charity for license plate fundraising help, when there are secular charities available to accomplish the same or similar goals, does indeed pose a church-state separation problem.

Right to Life of Rhode Island says that Governor Chafee is "hiding behind the separation of church and state." Perhaps he is. Perhaps he really just doesn't want his abortion industry donors to have too much competition from pro-life charities. Perhaps he is de facto opposed to choices other than abortion.

But the only way to know is to pass legislation that funds pregnancy support services broadly. Pro-life advocates in Rhode Island should try again, this time with a bill that distributes funds to qualifying charities without regard to religion.


Janet Susan said...

With the vast sums of tax dollars (from many of us who oppose abortion) going to the giant-who-will-not-be-named that performs thousands of abortions annually, this is such a non-issue to me. So write him to fund other pro-life organizations? ...smh

Kelsey said...

My own money is on Chafee not actually caring about church-state separation and just wanting to reduce competition to said giant-who-will-not-be-named. But since it's such an easy excuse to eliminate, pro-lifers should go ahead and just do that. Then see what Chafee comes up with.

Wendy said...

I agree with this blog post entirely. As an FYI, however, did you know that Planned Parenthood employs its own chaplain? Hmmmmmmmm...

Drew Hymer said...

i take it that you're ok with the license plate funding Care Net as long as it also funds similar secular orgs.

Tony DiRienzo said...

You have a strange view of the church-state separation in US government. The actual purpose of the "wall of separation" is to prevent the government from telling people what they may and may not believe. What I see here is quite the opposite of that protection.

Consider for a moment what the state (through Governor Chafee's action) is actually saying: "We are denying public funding for your pregnancy care programs on the sole basis of what you believe." When objection to a group's publicly-held religious views is the primary motivating factor for denying public funds, the government has violated the church-state separation by establishing a code of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" beliefs.

Your own argument allows for carte blanche to discriminate against religious organizations simply because of what they believe, regardless of the services they provide. By the reasoning you present, a secular organization may fairly be the sole recipient of public funds, but a religious organization which provides an identical service may not receive any public funding until at least one secular group is also being funded.

Speaking more plainly, your reasoning supports placing undue burden on certain pro-life groups as a government-sanctioned penalty for self-identifying as religious.

This goes beyond preventing the promotion of one religion over another, and enters into the realm of actively repressing of religion.

I would like to point out that you have not presented here any discussion on the specific criteria that were used in selecting the charities to benefit from the Rhode Island legislation, nor do you give any indication that you believe any criteria were used. You do not demonstrate that any secular pro-life organization requested to be part of this license plate program and was denied participation on the basis of being non-Christian. You have not explained what you found in examining the wording of the legislation that would prevent additional pro-life groups from benefiting from the program in the future. In fact, it is the conspicuous absence of these details in any conversation I have seen about this legislation that leads me to agree with your ultimate conclusion: The veto had little to do with religion, and much to do with defending abortion.

From all appearances, you have unreasoningly assumed the worst in this situation. You have allowed yourself to be caught up in the part of the media sensationalism that you wanted to believe (that a Christian group was receiving an unfair benefit over its peers due to the intentional exclusion of those peers), because of your frustration with religious identification in the pro-life arena. What I appreciate more than anything about this blog is your unrelenting dedication to the underlying universal logic of the pro-life position. I believe you compromise your integrity when you allow your bias to show (as you have done here).

frankbellamy said...

The first amendment doesn't just prohibit an establishment, it prohibits anything "respecting an establishment of religion." The issue, as I see it, is that a christian center really only meets the needs of christians, and nonchristians are equal citizens of the state of Rhode Island and therefore equally entitled to benefit from the funding generated by the plate. So if the government were to pick out one organization to give the funds to, and that organization wasn't religious, I see no problem with that, since that organization would be able to serve all citizens of Rhode Island regardless of their religion. But if the legislature passed a law that distributed the funds to multiple organizations based on a set of criteria, and one of the criteria was that the organization can't be religious, then I would agree, that also presents a church/state problem.

frankbellamy said...

Tony, your argument makes the assumption, which I'll assume to be false until presented with very strong evidence to the contrary, that this religious center does provide the same services as a secular organization would. In particular, does it provide non-christian clients the ability to receive services without being confronted with symbols of a religion they may find deeply offensive or hostile? Without being offered information about Jesus, or how christian doctrine might help them in their situation? Without finding christian literature in the waiting room, or hearing christian music? For non-christians these sorts of things are at best very awkward and at worst create a very hostile environment. If this center only meets the needs of christians, that should be plenty of for the government set up to serve all citizens not to fund it, at least without funding other centers that provide similar services to non-christians.

ockraz said...

I believe the test is whether public money supports a "religious function" of a church and that's why Obama was comfortable continuing the faith based initiative program. If I'm right then just the fact that it's church run isn't necessarily a problem. The question is whether they provide services in a way that constitutes preaching, worshiping, proselytizing, etc. (I'm just a dilettante though. Kelsey's the pro, so she'd know if that's right.)

ockraz said...

"confronted with symbols of a religion... offered information about Jesus, or
how christian doctrine... finding christian literature in the waiting room, or hearing christian

The first and last don't strike me (see above) as violating the separation of church and state. If the gov gives money to soup kitchens, having a crucifix on the wall, Christian music on the radio, and bibles in the waiting room shouldn't be a problem. It's only the second one that matters, and we're only guessing there.

frankbellamy said...

That may be the test employed by the executive branch in some of its programs, but the courts have refused to rule on the constitutionality of the faith based initiate, and I would maintain that they are not constitutional.

Drew Hymer said...

i'm against license plates. they're just a big unjustified violation of privacy. The cop pulls up behind you at a light, you're doing nothing wrong but he runs your plate. No warrant, no reasonable suspicion, nothing.

Putting that aside, why can't the state get out of the license plate business? The state could assign you your number and you could buy your plate from Care Net or SPLP or anyone else.

Tony DiRienzo said...

My apologies for offending. My comment about the integrity of your argument was ill-advised.

Thank you for your explanation of questions of fact and questions of law. Unfortunately, I did not continue my studies beyond courses in common law and contract law, and I was unaware of this distinction (though this seems like a common law principle, so perhaps I was not paying enough attention). I will consider my burden of proof argument properly dismissed.

It seems to me that we are having a fundamental disagreement based on our different approaches to this situation. You are arguing against what you consider a violation of the establishment clause, and I am arguing against what I see as a violation of the free exercise clause.

I am personally of the opinion ockraz seems to be putting forward: that the principles of "charitable choice" exemplified in various federal laws and the FBCI criteria outlined in executive order 13279 ought to be observed in situations like this (in order to protect the free exercise rights of faith-based organizations). I was not making any particular claim about the "enviornment" or "atmosphere" of the CareNet RI facility, but rather considering the likelihood of their compliance with the above-mentioned criteria. According to CareNet RI's website, they do in fact appear to be operating in compliance with those principles.

(However, it seems that Governor Chafee justified his decision on the basis of the official website of CareNet (of which CareNet RI is an affiliate). CareNet itself does not appear to be in compliance with the FBCI criteria.)

frankbellamy said...

If I'm remembering right, I got the questions of law v fact thing from a civil procedure course, so I'm not surprised it wouldn't have been covered much in a course on substantive common law or contract law.

Whether religious organizations, as opposed to individuals, have free exercise rights at all is itself a very controversial proposition. In general rights given to organizations tend to cut into individual rights, which is why they're so controversial. The supreme court is going to have to decide this in the context of the contraception mandate, but it hasn't yet, so who knows what is going to happen.

Even if organizations do have free exercise rights, I'm not sure how the free exercise argument works here. I can't think of a case where free exercise was in play over a government denial of funds to anyone. The only cases I can think of where free exercise has been at play from the government denying someone money have been unemployment benefits cases which have been limited to their facts. That means that while they haven't been formally overturned, later cases have basically said that their reasoning shouldn't be applied to any other context. Usually free exercise comes up when the government tells someone they have to do something, and the person says "that violates my religion", which isn't happening here.

I think what you are going for is actually the idea of viewpoint neutrality, that the government can't disfavor someone's speech (even religious speech) because it doesn't like the message they are delivering. Viewpoint neutrality doctrine has been applied to government funding, but it comes from the free speech clause, not the free exercise clause.

I won't deny that the idea of viewpoint neutrality creates interesting paradoxes when we have private intermediaries between government and individuals. All I can say is that the individual clients presumably have a free speech (and/or free exercise?) right to be able to receive services without being placed in an environment which is hostile/offensive to them based on their religious beliefs. And shouldn't the free speech/exercise rights of individuals trump those of groups? Also, a couple of years ago the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case where an organization denied government funding (and other benefits) because it wouldn't (in the governments eyes) serve people of all religions equally, and the organization lost, the court found that the requirement was viewpoint neutral (Christian Legal Society v. Martinez).

As a matter of what legal requirements formally apply to what, the standards that the executive branch of the federal government has set for its own programs simply have no application to how the state of Rhode Island chooses to disperse funds. Neither the President nor any of these federal agencies has any authority to tell Rhode Island what to do in a case like this. And as I've said, the standard you cite has never been considered by a court in terms of how it meshes with the First Amendment (which does apply to Rhode Island). So that just leaves the normative question. I've told you why I think that creating an environment hostile or offensive to non-christians is a sufficient basis to deny exclusive government funding. Non-christians are equal citizens of the state of Rhode Island and therefor equally entitled to benefit from the funds generated by government programs. You've stated that you prefer a different standard, but you haven't told me why you think your standard is better, is morally or normatively correct. Why do you think your standard is better than mine?

Tiff said...

But only the people buying the plates and supporting the organization would give money to it, right? You can see what charity your giving your money to and decide whether or not that's a charity you want to support. The words "separation of church and state" are not in the Constitution. It says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The state isn't forcing anyone to participate, they are free to buy the plates and donate to the organization and they are free not to. Just the same with any other plates supporting a secular organization, no one "has" to purchase those plates. They can see where the money goes and make the decision to support the organization or not.