Roberta Combs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–One of Gov. Jeb Bush’s top three priorities for his second term is “building Florida’s families by renewing the spirit of community.” State House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a conservative lawyer from Alabama, has created a “Committee on The Future of Florida’s Families.”

Florida and other states are rapidly jumping onto a conservative pro-family bandwagon being made possible through “faith-based” initiatives at the White House.

Championed by religious groups such as the Christian Coalition of America and facilitated by the newest crop of conservative thinkers elected to state legislatures and governors’ mansions, government officials are increasingly treading into an area previously considered off-limits: how people behave in their most private moments at home.

“Government is already involved in every aspect of people’s lives,” said Jeb Bush, President Bush’s younger brother, during a December meeting with his Building Florida’s Families Transition Team. “The demand placed on government because family life is not as strong as it could be is huge, it’s astronomical.”

The agenda is being pushed at both the state and national level by members of the Christian Coalition.

“President George W. Bush invited me to the White House. He greeted me warmly and told me to tell all of our coalition members to ‘keep up the great work,'” Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs said in a statement. “The president understands that we are in the middle of a literal battleground, fighting day and night for all the people of America.”

Legal Restrictions Leave Lots of Loopholes

Most state constitutions, like the national one, prohibit the use of tax money to fund religious endeavors. Yet judicial interpretations of those laws, as was the case of using tax-backed vouchers for children to attend private schools, have steadily moved toward a more lenient view.

A survey by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy found that 10 states maintain first amendment-type clauses. Thirty-seven states have broader prohibitions on the direct financing of religious organizations. Twenty-nine states prohibit state financing of religious schools. And six states, including Florida and Georgia, extend explicit prohibitions to both direct and indirect financing. The numbers don’t add up to 50 because some states have more than one type of clause.

The roundtable was created by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, with a $6.3 million, two-year grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Partnering with George Washington University Law School and Search for Common Ground, the roundtable is charged with developing and disseminating a comprehensive, impartial body of research on the role of faith-based organizations in social welfare.

Now that it has surveyed state constitutions and laws, the next step for the roundtable is to survey faith-based institutions now at work, or poised to work, with state governments, said the Rockefeller Institute spokesman R. Bryan Jackson.

“One of the things we have found in an early study is that in many cases, where the Bush administration is promoting marriage as a foundation for social welfare, when you get out into the actual level of delivery of services, there are some concerns about civil services getting involved in people’s lives to that extent, ” Jackson said. However, he said, that is exactly what the faith-based institutions do. “Thus as an institution, the faith-based have a leg up because they have more familiarization with that level of delving into people’s lives.”

President Bush’s sweeping changes to faith-based initiatives would do away with two protections that are of special concern to the American Civil Liberties Union. Previously, religious organizations receiving federal funds, including those channeled through state contracts, were prohibited from proselytizing and from discriminating in their employment practices.

“Organizations such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services have successfully operated under current contractual requirements that prohibit religious proselytizing and discrimination against people who don’t share their same faith,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “Without these standards in place, we’re basically saying it’s OK for government to fund religious practices.”

Defining ‘Family’

Jeb Bush

Details of the Florida plan remain sketchy. But Gov. Bush would like the state to do away with its “no fault” divorce law. He and his policy advisors want to increase premarital counseling requirements, push parental involvement in schools and create the nation’s first state-level faith-based contracting office within the governor’s office.

Pat Conover, legislative director of the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, noted that there are political as well as legal complications for faith-based organizations.

“Some original advocates of charitable choice have backed off the issue when they discovered the dangers of possible entanglement with legal restrictions,” he said.

In addition, the very definition of “family” complicates meaningful dialogue. Faith-based institutions coming from a conservative viewpoint traditionally envision the idealized “Beaver Cleaver” family of a working dad, stay-at-home mom and a couple of kids–a definition far from reality.

In fact, less than one quarter of all households contain a married couple with their own children. That’s a decline from 40 percent in 1970 to 24 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Finding a full-time stay-at-home mom would bring that percentage down much further.

Many are concerned about the increased blurring of lines between constitutional separation of church and state. Others have raised concerns that there is little monitoring of how government money is used by faith-based organizations or the outcome of faith-based programs.

“The bottom line is the legal distinction between service and worship,” said Paul Bather, chief financial officer for One Church-One Family, a national organization that works with faith-based providers in communities across the country. “There is a serious mandate that we have to consider and resolve the conflicts in this issue.”

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy:

Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush’s Transition Team:

Christian Coalition of America: