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On January 30, a coalition of social service providers gathered on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol. Ranging from Avista Adventist Hospital and the Denver Rescue Mission, which helps the homeless, to the Handprints Early Education Centers and Focus on the Family, the group had one thing in common. All of them were religiously based nonprofits offering some form of service to the general public. Among them was Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver, the largest nongovernment provider of social services in the Rocky Mountain region. And the source of their concern was a seemingly modest piece of state legislation, House Bill (HB) 1080.

Colorado HB 1080, pushed by the Anti-Defamation League after failing in a similar attempt last year, presents itself as an effort to bar discrimination. But the so-called “discrimination” HB 1080 targets is actually the legitimate freedom of religiously affiliated nonprofits to hire employees of like faith to carry out their mission. In practice, HB 1080 would strike down the freedom of Catholic Charities to preferentially hire Catholics for its leadership jobs if it takes state funds.

Of course, Catholic Charities can always decline public funds and continue its core mission with private money. In the Archdiocese of Denver, we’re ready to do exactly that. But the issues involved in HB 1080, and the troubling agenda behind it, are worth some hard reflection.

Religious groups have been delivering services to the poor a great deal longer than the government. The government uses religious social service agencies precisely because they’re good at it and typically more cost-effective in their work than the government could be. In fact, groups like Catholic Charities often lose money on government contracts, and the government knows it. Religious agencies frequently accept these losses as part of their mission to the general public. But their mission depends, of course, on leaders who share and safeguard their religious identity.

Bills like HB 1080 proceed from the assumption that public money, in passing through religious agencies to the poor, somehow miraculously commingles Church and state and violates the Constitution’s establishment clause.

This view is peculiar on at least two levels. First, accepting public money to perform a government-desired service does not make a private agency part of the government. Nor does it transform the government into a catechism class. But insofar as any “debt” exists in a government and religious agency relationship, it’s the government that owes the service provider, not the other way around. Obviously, if the government wants to carry the social burden it currently asks religious-affiliated groups to carry, that’s the government’s business¯and so are the costs and problems that go along with it.

But if religious groups do help bear the burden, often at a financial loss to themselves, then they can reasonably insist on the right to protect their own mission. The privilege of helping the government is pretty thin soup if the cost involves compromising one’s religious identity.

The second and more dangerous problem with bills like HB 1080 is that they aggressively advance a secularist interpretation of the “separation of Church and state.” Whether they do it consciously or not, groups like the Anti-Defamation League seem to argue from the presumption that any public money passing through religious agency hands is somehow rendered “baptized” and therefore unable to serve the common good. Aside from being enormously offensive to religious believers, this view is also alien to American history, which is filled with examples of government and private religious cooperation to achieve common public goals.

It’s certainly reasonable for government to require that religious service agencies refrain from using public funds to proselytize. But Catholic Charities doesn’t do that anyway; that’s not its purpose. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the six hundred jobs at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver are already open to anyone of goodwill and competence, regardless of religious background. The relatively few positions that do require a faithful, practicing Catholic are exactly the ones that help guarantee Charities’ “Catholic” identity and its grounding in the social ministry of the Church.

It’s unreasonable¯in fact, it shows a peculiar hostility toward religion¯to claim that religious organizations will compromise the public good if they remain true to their religious identity while serving the poor with public funds. That’s just a new form of prejudice, using the “separation of Church and state” as an alibi.

Bills like HB 1080 are now occurring all over the country. The lesson here for American Catholics is this: For more than forty years, we’ve worked to integrate, accommodate, and assimilate to American society in the belief that a truly diverse public square would have room for authentically Catholic life and faith. We need to revisit that assumption. It turns out that nobody gets anything for free. If we want to influence, or even have room to breathe in the American environment of coming generations, we’ll need to work for it and fight for it¯always in a spirit of justice and charity, but also vigorously and without apology. Anyone who still has an easy confidence about the Catholic “place” in American life had better wake up.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Denver.

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