When President Obama launched his faith-based initiative at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, he promised not only to sustain the Bush administration’s signature domestic program—but to expand it.

For religious groups, this means continued access to billions of federal dollars for a wide range of social services—from homeless shelters to drug rehabilitation programs—run by houses of worship across the nation.

Critics of the Bush faith-based initiative have long charged that tax money has flowed to religious groups without sufficient constitutional safeguards against such practices as religious discrimination in hiring and proselytizing in government-funded programs.

In announcing his version of the program, Obama pledged not to blur “the line our Founders wisely drew between church and state.” But it remains to be seen exactly where this president intends to draw that line.

Many religious and political conservatives are pressuring the new administration not to place limits on preaching or hiring, arguing that religious groups must be free to carry out their mission in ways authentic to their faith. Meanwhile, many civil libertarians are warning of more political and legal fallout if the proselytizing and employment issues aren’t addressed.

Just this month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal appeals court to allow taxpayers to challenge public funding of a Baptist childcare agency in Kentucky that Americans United alleges “proselytizes youngsters in its care and discriminates against gay employees who do not share its belief that homosexuality is sinful.”

However Obama resolves this debate—and the betting is that he will side with civil rights groups and church-state watchdogs—houses of worship should think twice about the wisdom of getting into bed with the government in the first place.

During the Bush era, I asked an evangelical leader if he thought sending tax money to religious groups for social services was constitutional. He said yes—but he still advises congregations not to take the money. The government, he said, is like a python: Once you are entangled, you get the life squeezed out of you.

Lest we forget, the establishment clause of the First Amendment is intended not only to prevent religious control of government, but also government control of religion. State-imposed regulations and conditions inevitably dilute the faith in faith-based programs. As they say in Washington, with shekels come shackles.

Government money also threatens religious autonomy and freedom. Under the First Amendment, religious groups in America have always relied on the voluntary support of adherents to advance their mission. As a consequence, faith groups have been free to speak truth to power without fear of state reprisal. But reliance on government support would surely muffle that prophetic voice.

In stark contrast to the moribund, tax-supported churches in Western Europe, thousands of American faith communities thrive in the marketplace of religious competition. Separating church from state is very good for religion and essential for full religious liberty.

Of course, the temptation is to take the money—especially at a time when so many people are in such dire need of help. But when government funding compromises the faith mission, undermines religious independence, and creates dependency on government, it is too high a price to pay.

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