Stupid Question ™
Feb. 8, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Are Satanic churches eligible for President Bush’s plan for funding the social programs of religious groups?
—Grande Beaver of Compton
A: While it’s too early to tell, Satanists had better be eligible, if the Faith-Based Initiative intends to withstand a First Amendment challenge.
It may also be a moot point, since Satanism is not known for its social services. But similar eligibility questions have been raised over the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology—questions the White House has dodged, and which highlight the concerns of many constitutional scholars and religious-freedom groups.
President Bush’s proposal calls for spending unspecified “billions” of dollars on funding religious and secular non-governmental social programs over the next 10 years, and broadening tax deductions for charitable donations to them. He has also established a new White House office to help such groups get funding, and to inspire similar programs in each state.
Bush has said that religious groups would compete for funding solely on the effectiveness of their programs. The particular faith, or even “no faith at all,” wouldn’t matter. Also, the groups would be barred from direct proselytizing in the programs.
However, most of Bush’s language, and the fundamental charitable notions underlying the program, are biased toward Judeo-Christian ideals and concepts. And the previous programs that inspired Bush were created by conservative Christians with overt Christian language.
One was the “Charitable Choice” provision of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, which created vouchers for religious programs that are allowed to openly proselytize. The other is Bush’s own Faith in Action program in Texas, which ran into at least one legal controversy over an unpopular religious group gaining a program grant.
Bush only announced his federal proposal about 10 days ago, and it’s still vague, especially in terms of eligibility standards.
It’s likely that the main standard will be tax-exempt status. At least one quasi-Satanic group, the Temple of Set, has this status. Satanism is also officially recognized by the US Army Chaplain’s Manual.
But no major Satanic group offers a social service program. Satanism’s main tenets involve self-interest and individuality, and there is little group activity.
Even if Satanists did run soup kitchens, it’s unlikely they’d accept federal funds. The original Church of Satan in San Francisco said it opposes “government assistance” of religion of any kind, which is why it has never applied for tax exemption.
“We oppose the very idea that the government should offer funds derived from taxpayers to any religious groups,” said a Church of Satan spokesperson, adding that the “ostensible charitable efforts” of Christianity and Islam are largely motivated by the urge to proselytize.
Of the many questions hanging over implementation of Bush’s proposal, the Satanism issue highlights perhaps the largest one: Is it right to ask taxpayers—including those who belong to the Church of Satan—to support the programs of religions they find odious?