Add Colorado to the list of state governments sharpening the points of the already thorny problem of church and state. Catholic News Agency reports on a kerfuffle between Archbishop Charles Chaput (on behalf of Catholic Charities of Colorado) and the state’s legislature over a pending bill that would restrict religious organizations’ ability to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring. (The regulation applies, of course, to groups that take government funds.) In other words, a non-profit such as Catholic Charities would not be permitted to make adherence to the Catholic faith a qualification necessary to be a manager, even a director, in the organization. Obviously this is a cause for concern for an institution claiming to have a distinctly Catholic identity.
There are at least a couple interesting angles to this story. First, this is yet another example of the spread of a terrible misunderstanding of the meaning of church-state separation in the American context. Place blame where you like: I choose the 1947 Supreme Court decision Everson v. Board of Education, which burdened the legal system with the unfortunate phrase “high wall of separation.” Creative and mendacious judges notwithstanding, the First Amendment does not prohibit any and every relationship between churches and governments, especially state governments, and including funding that has as its purpose social programs rather than church functions (as in the case of Catholic Charities). We went through this whole thing when the current president proposed his faith-based initiative, but evidently not everybody attained clarity on the issue.
Second—also a throwback to the faith-based initiative debate—there is the related but distinct question of whether it is wise, helpful, and ultimately beneficial to all parties to have state funds funneled through religious organizations such as Catholic Charities. The question has been raised with specific reference to Catholic Charities USA by, among others, Acton’s Fr. Sirico, going back at least to the mid-1990s. More recently, the issue has been forced by, for example, California’s 2004 attack on Catholic Charities over the provision of birth control in employees’ health insurance, Massachusetts’ mandate on adoption by gay couples, and now this. To their credit, the pertinent Catholic authorities have usually refused to compromise in these cases.
To be clear, I think the Colorado legislature is mistaken and this and other similar assaults on the prerogatives of Catholic (or any other religious) institutions are unjust and unconstitutional. Yet it may be time once again to make the proposal, which would solve the problem and which will doubtless be categorically rejected by Catholic leaders and government officials alike: pull back the reach of the state’s provision of social assistance and let private donations fund Catholic Charities and all such charitable groups.