Keep the faith

Review & outlook (editorial)


By the editors

The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 1999

Al Gore is for it. George W. Bush has made it a campaign centerpiece. We’re talking about government backing for faith-based programs. But if houses of worship are to succeed where 10,000 public welfare offices have failed, the civil-rights busybodies who man government posts need to leave the churches alone.

Just ask the Rev. Thomas Cross of Mason Cathedral Church of God in Christ, in Boston’s Dorchester section. For seven years now, the church has run a summer day camp called Keys of Life, staffed by teen age counselors whose wages are paid by a federal jobs program. But after witnessing “religious activities” during a routine inspection — including the horror of teen counselors joining in prayers! — city official Steven Godfrey fired off a letter to the church: The “expectation,” he wrote, is that all “enrollees working in religious-based agencies will not participate in `religious activities.’ These include, but are not limited to the following: praying, reading Bible stories, drawing Bible pictures, and cleaning in the area of the church where there are religious symbols.” The city pulled the employees from the program, leaving Keys of Life short-handed.

No one denies the small miracles that Mr. Cross is working. And he cheerfully admits that they start off with the Lord’s Prayer each morning. When he first arrived in Dorchester eight years ago, things were so bad that prostitutes conducted business on the street in front of the church. Through preaching, prayer and programs, Mr. Cross, his daughter Kenya and his small flock were able to work a change. “When I came here, no one finished high school,” Mr. Cross recalls. “Now we have people in college.” Among the kids at his summer camp, Mr. Cross points out, are children of the former prostitutes, now parishioners.

The first point to make here is that it is far from clear that Keys of Life violated any law. The program contract provides that “no enrollee shall be engaged in sectarian work,” but it is open to debate whether joining in a group prayer qualifies as such work. The Job Training Partnership Act, the law that pays for the teen workers, says that employees should not work “on the construction, operation, or maintenance” of a church. It says nothing about child care, the main assignment for Keys of Life counselors.

The city suggests a more general issue of church-state separation here. But the constitution does not require that God disappear from people’s lives — or public programs. In his own column on the flap for the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby rightly noted that the Framers designed the First Amendment to protect religious establishments, not hassle them.

The point is that if we as a nation are turning to faith-based charity, we must recognize that it is precisely because they are faith-based. As the Rev. Cross told one of his city overseers, “black kids have enough trouble that they need to pray.” We’re inclined to agree with him that if the worst thing that can happen to one of his teenage counselors is that he hears the Lord’s Prayer, that’s progress.