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August 31, 2004

Fanatics' Fingers

Two bits of information that came to my ears as I continued attempting to prepare for my seventh grade Catholic school class's first day, next week, struck me as symbolic. Hopefully they aren't yet representative.

My awareness of the first tidbit is light on details. Apparently, anybody who volunteers to serve as a Eucharistic minister must undergo a Criminal Offense Record Investigation (CORI), which is a state-run background check for people — ostensibly — who deal with children. For those who don't know, a Eucharistic minister is a layperson who stands at the front of the church (or an aisle therein or elsewhere) and hands out the Eucharist to parishioners. That's it.

Now, I don't know whether this is a state policy or a diocesan policy, and I'm not saying that sexual predators ought to be able to take any post they desire in a church. However, unless this is a case of the Church's setting its own policies well beyond the law's requirements, the state is clearly overstepping its boundaries into religious affairs.* Furthermore, I'm not implying a secular conspiracy, but CORI forms have a blank space in which to write the position sought, and we ought all to become a little bit uncomfortable when the government begins compiling data on everybody who serves in such purely religious capacities.

The second tidbit is more concrete and, in my view, objectionable. The school's new principal has been going through the building in a thorough sweep of reorganization and redecoration, so when I noticed the absence of a picture, of Jesus looking over a valley, that often attracted my attention when I taught in the computer room, I asked the new computer teacher where it had gone. Apparently, it wasn't the impulse of fresh surroundings that had pulled the picture down, but rather a Title 1 grant.

Contrary to many of the stereotypes of Catholic schools, our student body includes children from such families as federal funds are meant to assist — completely in the spirit of the stated purpose of Title 1:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.

Is it definitional to "fairness" that a room be free of religious imagery? That would seem manifestly unfair to students from communities that consider religion intrinsic to proper education. If the purpose of a grant is to provide, for example, adequate computers for use by students who otherwise would have to make do with the 1995 donations of working-class parishioners, how is it otherwise than discriminatory to expand on that purpose to ensure that the walls pay homage to anybody except explicitly religious figures? (Incidentally, don't even atheists concede that Jesus was probably an historical figure?)

Certainly, the public has a right to direct its shared funds to shared goals and interests. But it is a perversion when those interests are conceived to reach beyond a tangible, shared objective in order to enforce the worldview of a particular segment of society — dictating by stealth that a central aspect of a community's life is cannot underlie their children's education. Ink would fly among all three branches of our government were any one governing body to offer grants with the provision that no figures representative of racial, gender, or ethnic identity contributed to the educational setting. How turned around we must be for religion — among the primary and most explicit areas in which our government is required to take no coercive interest — to be the one aspect of life that provokes government leverage for extraction.

* In an idealized, abstract world, I'd give states more leeway in deciding their own boundaries between Church and State, but it is simply unacceptable for infringement of the latter on the former to be the only allowable prerogative.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 31, 2004 6:07 PM

I would guess that those criminal background checks are the result of lawsuit fears, either directly by the Church or indirectly through the insurance company.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at September 1, 2004 12:10 AM

I think this made the news in St. Blog's a while back. You know: priests commit crimes, bishops let them get away with it, and... laymen have to get criminal background checks. Go figure.

Posted by: ELC at September 1, 2004 2:49 PM


On the other hand, see this op-ed piece from the Detroit News:

Religious coercion in Michigan case shows government should be wary of faith-based programs

"As part of a progressive court program, Hanas had a chance to receive drug rehabilitation rather than go to jail. There was, unfortunately, one major problem — Joe Hanas is a practicing Catholic, and the program was operated by Pentecostals. Though the judge’s intent may not have been for Hanas to convert to the Pentecostal faith, his test for Hanas’ successful completion of the “drug court” program hinged on just that.
"The coercion was extreme, and it was an elected judge who allowed it. Hanas’ rosary, his Bible and his priest were all kept from him. Staff members, none of them certified or trained drug counselors or therapists, told him that Catholicism is a form of “witchcraft.” He was not only forbidden to follow his Catholic faith, but he was also tested on his learning of Pentecostal principles.

"And, he was told, his rehabilitation would not be complete until he knelt at the altar and proclaimed himself “saved.” "

Complete article at:


Regards, Bill

Posted by: Bill Ware at September 2, 2004 10:59 AM

I would say that it more accurately shows that the Judiciary has no regard for issues like faith and that the media is spinning it the way they want it to look.

Posted by: smmtheory at September 2, 2004 12:56 PM


You say, "the Judiciary has no regard for issues like faith..."

I have no idea what this means.

Then, "...the media is spinning it the way they want it to look."

I don't know what this means either. This is an opinion piece, not a news story, the author is responsible for the content, not the newspaper.

Posted by: Bill Ware at September 2, 2004 9:18 PM


Yes, of course balancing public objectives and religious freedom requires, well, balance, but one judge's effectively giving a man a choice between religious conversion or jail (and effectively handing the ACLU a lawsuit on a silver platter) doesn't mean that religion must be suppressed within 50 feet of government funds.

I don't have the time to research what happened and what should have happened in the case that you cite. But there's an echo of my point in Wendy Wagenheim's piece:

In fact, these are the kind of programs that President Bush funded when he was governor of Texas; drug addiction is treated as a sin and Bible study is provided as treatment.

I'd suggest that a religious person will respond better to treatment that draws on his specific tradition. If public funds are meant to help people to get off drugs, then it would be both discriminatory and counterproductive to exclude religiously based treatments. As with the computers, the goal is to provide treatment that otherwise wouldn't be available, and it shouldn't require that one accept the priesthood of therapists.

It seems to me that the answer in Hanas's case is pretty simple:

Hanas’ only alternative was to request a transfer to another program where he would not be coerced into practicing a religious faith alien to his own. However, the judge viewed his early withdrawal from the program as an indication that Hanas was not committed to overcoming his substance abuse.

Now, I don't know whether there was more basis than is immediately evident for the judge to have done that. (To be honest, I would be as unsurprised to learn that he is a radical secularist as to learn that he's Pentecostal.) But assuming that there was not, the answer is simply to make accommodations for religion, not to exclude it. Drug offenders being offered such options ought to be given adequate opportunity to learn about programs before entering them, and to leave if the programs misrepresented themselves.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 2, 2004 10:01 PM

Okay Bill, I'll elucidate...

Perhaps it would have made more sense if I had instead stated it as - I would say that it more accurately shows that the Judge has no regard for issues like faith of the person being sentenced... For one, it sounded like there was a secular program available, but for some reason the judge arbitrarily decided this fellow should be mandated to the religious program that did not fit his faith.

Next is the headline... Religious coercion in Michigan case shows government should be wary of faith-based programs

The media is spinning it the way they want it to look. In other words... This case does not show that government should be wary of faith-based programs. It merely shows that a certain judge needs to be more careful in his/her decisions. Why would the opinion writer equivocate "one judge" with "the government" if it was not their intent to malign the faith-based initiatives?

Posted by: smmtheory at September 3, 2004 12:15 AM

ssmtheory, Thanks, I gottcha.

We don't know the details, but Judges, especially in drug court, have such wide discretion that I doubt that his ruling is being challenged. Mr. Hanas was given perhaps his "one chance" to avoid jail and he blew it by leaving the program early. Sorry, it's off to jail, no excuses accepted, that's my policy.

As far as the headline is concerned I'm fine with the word "wary." I'm not sure why they said "government" when I should think it would be "citizens" who should keep an eye on how the government is spending our money.

My grandmother taught me long ago not to make disparaging remarks about another's religion, and racial and ethic slurs are not in my vocabulary. I find it disturbing, then, that our tax dollars are going to a group that equates Catholicism with witchcraft. What do they call Hindus or Moslems?

A person should be able to enter any program the government pays for and expect those in charge to adhere to the governments policies regarding discrimination and harassment. My grandmother called it being polite. I call it being respectful. Geez, is this too much to ask?

Posted by: Bill Ware at September 4, 2004 6:30 AM


Thanks for your limited time. You must be busy with your twelve year old charges. There are lots of school teachers in the family, grandfather, mother, daughter. So, how many are there? What are they like, any trouble makers? Do you spend the whole day with one set, or do they switch classes for some subjects?

Anyway, congratulations on the new job.

I have to agree with the value of faith based charities. When it comes to addiction problems, they can be especially effective. I would recommend AA's 12 step program to anyone. Calling on a higher power is essential to this program's success, I would say.

In accepting government funding, groups agree not to discriminate with regard to those they serve, or those they hire to provide these services. They are to follow EOC guidelines. They also agree not to engage in proselytizing recipients who may well be a captive audience.

I was in the service, so the Base Chaplain comes to mind. He or she went to a seminary which taught the tenets of their faith, some of which may be different than other sects. Baptists believe in full body immersion during baptism, for example. Yet when a person signs on as a Military Chaplain he or she agrees to be respectful of the variety of beliefs represented by the soldiers and to present programs that would serve the religious and not so religious alike.

It seems to me that faith based programs could benefit from the same philosophy, and not just because it's the law. Programs that use education rather than coercion result in more long lasting changes in behavior. That's something I learned as a Safety Officer in the Air Force.

Programs are free to use the Bible for inspiration and teaching like any other literature. Bible passages can be on a suggested reading list. One can't require the reading or memorization of verses.

Leaders can mention tenets of their faith and explain how these might be helpful in kicking the habit, but they can't demand that these be accepted. Participants can't be required to join in prayers or religious services, and religious rites, like kneeling at the altar and saving your "saved" can't be a part of the requirements.

The sad thing about it is that if they used inspiration and education which are well within the guidelines, they would have much better results to show for it than what they are now doing.

Posted by: Bill Ware at September 4, 2004 3:01 PM

You are right, a person should be able to enter any government funded program like that and expect them to adhere to government guidelines of non-discrimination and non-proselyzation. If their experience suggests otherwise, then the regulators that oversee the faith-based programs need to step in.

I have similar sentiments regarding the labeling of Catholicism as witchcraft. Of course Hanas should probably have tried to continue the program just the same until the judge could be convinced that changing to another program was called for, but I don't know how intense the attempted indoctrination was. It was unfortunate for Mr. Hanas that he gave the judge reason to believe that he would not complete a rehab program.

Posted by: smmtheory at September 6, 2004 8:03 PM


Sorry for the delayed response. I've got 28 students, three of whom are especially difficult to handle. (One problem: schools and their codes are oriented toward girls, at worst, or strive for unisexism, at best, so even male teachers have to tiptoe around their sense of the most effective approach to honing boys to the appropriate behavior.)

Regarding the subject at hand, I guess what it comes down to is a balance of doctrine and discrimination, and which side of the line one leans toward. For example, if a person joins a Muslim program for alcoholics, I wouldn't count it as discrimination if everybody had to memorize passages from the Koran. It's a Muslim program, and as long as participants (1) know what to expect going in, and (2) have an option, I don't see any reason to open the door for the government to begin interpreting what is religious content and what counts as coercion. In California, Catholic Charities doesn't qualify as a religious group. In some schools, one gets the sense that a teacher's admission of being a Christian would count as coercion (role models that teachers are).

If a religious group considered visible contrition at the altar of God, for example, to be crucial for turning around the life of a druggie, placing insistence on that point outside of bounds, although perhaps offering the way for a religion-lite version for non-adherents, would necessarily water down the therapy for adherents.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 8, 2004 4:35 PM


Sounds like a group that will keep you on your toes in more ways than one. Give those three youngsters lots of attention for positive behavior, perhaps that will help avoid the other kind. Good luck!

The rehab program gets complex compared to running a shelter, for example. One is working with the heart and soul of the person to a greater extent. I hope that this doesn't become one of those situations where chuch and state working together ends up benefitting neither.

Posted by: Bill Ware at September 9, 2004 6:31 PM