Threat From the South: Is American Religion Bad News for Canadian Social Welfare?

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Freedom of religious expression?

The second question addresses to what extent the state encourages or encroaches upon the free expression of religious diversity for those groups providing social services. In other words, are government partnerships with religious organizations accompanied by regulations that unduly limit a group from conducting its business in a way that is consistent with its religious beliefs? The challenge here is to find the right relationship between appropriate monitoring of accountability for public funds on the one hand and the autonomy of religious organizations to incorporate specific religious practices into the way in which publicly-funded services are provided on the other hand (Frumkin, 2000). A related issue is whether individuals requiring services have their individual religious freedom curtailed by being forced to participate in religious practices against their will as a condition of receiving the services.

As in the question about religious establishment, there is very little information about faith-based social service providers in Canada and the extent to which they feel their religious expression is restricted by government treatment. Hiemstra (2002), in a survey of 77 faith-based social agencies in the province of Alberta, found that the majority of agency directors found little curtailment of their religious expression as a consequence of government funding. At the same time, however, those organizations that had the most clearly articulated and distinct religious practices experienced greater restrictions to their religious expression. This suggests a tendency in Canada to restrict religious freedom unless the expression of it is more benign and limited to issues which are less divisive. Again, the case in public education is instructive. As noted above, some provinces do provide public funding for independent, religiously-based schools. In these provinces, school officials generally have reported that government monitoring and accountability has been limited to provincial standards for curricula, and that religious instruction, symbols, activities, and hiring have been relatively free from government intrusion (Sweet, 1997).

The case of government mandated and funded residential schools for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples operated by the major mainline Christian churches up to 1969 provides a tragic example of the violation of the religious freedom of minority groups (Miller, 1999). Both the churches and the federal government have faced massive lawsuits initiated by Aboriginal persons who were victims of abuses in the schools (Hodgson, 2002). In addition to suffering horrendous physical and sexual abuse at the hands of church officials, Aboriginal residents clearly had their religious and cultural practices systematically and intentionally stripped from them. This example points to the extreme ways in which the partnership of church and state can be used to restrict, punish, and even terrorize religious minorities (Hodgson, 2002). While these abuses have been recognized by both the churches and the federal government, this experience has understandably caused Canadians to be wary of the dangers that can come from church-state partnerships.

Dismantling the welfare state?

The third question considers more specifically the implications of government-religious partnerships for the welfare state and the appropriate role of government in relation to other sectors of society in providing social welfare (Berger & Neuhaus, 1996; Green, 1998). In debates of this topic, those on the political right have argued that the welfare state of the twentieth century set unrealistic expectations about what can be funded publicly, and what the proper role of government should be in meeting social needs (Brilliant, 1997; Johnson, 1987; Olasky, 1992). In the United States (De Vita, 1999), as well as in Europe (Lloyd, 2000), calls for greater responsibility for mediating institutions have been accompanied by, or some would argue, driven by, concomitant pressure for the devolution of responsibility for social welfare from the federal government to state and local institutions (Belcher, Fandetti & Cole, 2004). Phrases such as “the third way” and “civil society” reflect moves toward greater responsibility for individuals and their immediate networks (such as family, church, school, and community), combined with decreasing responsibility from national governments (Burbidge, 1997). The question this trend raises is the extent to which “those most loudly calling for renewal of civil society insist that vibrant local communities are the alternative to governmental responsibility for social provision” (Bane et al., 2000, p. 11; emphasis added). Put another way, is new interest in the role of religion and its relationship to government part of an agenda to reduce governmental roles for social welfare (Johnson, 1987; Wagner, 2000)? Are religious groups, organizations, and communities being asked to shoulder more of the social welfare load, and if so, is this motivated by declining commitment to collective social provision and a desire to reduce the governmental commitment to alleviating social problems?

Available evidence suggests that one of the central motives behind the increased attention to the third sector in Canada has been a search for more efficient and effective alternatives to a state-dominated social welfare system (Hall & Banting, 2000; McFarlane & Roach, 1999; Roach, 2000). While initially it was mostly neo-conservative and right wing groups arguing for this shift (April, Clemens, & Francis, 2000; Picard, 1996), others from the center and left of the political spectrum have also been exploring the viability of nonprofit organizations as well (Brock, 2000b; Lauziere, 2000). This recent focus has led to major initiatives by both the third sector and the government to explore the potential and challenges of strengthening the relationship between the two sectors (Brock, 2000b). As a result of work by task forces in both sectors, the federal government and an organization representing nonprofit organizations have launched a funded office to encourage and expand the capacity of the third sector (Voluntary Sector Initiative, 2000).

According to the best available information (Hall et al., 2004; Hall & Banting, 2000; Hirshorn, 1997), religious organizations constitute between 20-40% of all charitable organizations and are clearly one of the single largest categories among all charitable nonprofit organizations in Canada. Unfortunately, as noted above, little attention has been given to the unique role and characteristics of these organizations and their role within the welfare state. For example, in a recent report on the City of Hamilton’s Vision 2020 city plan, Van Pelt and Greydanus (2005) suggest that the role of religious organizations has been too long ignored in urban planning. Similarly, Maurutto (2003), in her investigation of the role of Catholic organizations providing social services in Toronto, argues that, “[f]ar from being shunted aside, the private agencies, such as Catholic charities, became increasingly entrenched within the expanding welfare state system” (p.7). Furthermore, in several recent studies by government and nonprofit task forces, private think-tanks, and various policy analysts, religion is mentioned only in passing, despite the fact that 88% of Canadians identify themselves as religious adherents (Bibby, 2000).

There are, however, signs that this attitude is changing. Since the 2000 Canadian federal election the role of faith in public life has increasingly come to the forefront, particularly given the attraction of religious groups to the Reform, Canadian Alliance, and Conservative parties. Nevertheless, this recognition seems to be limited to those who are already members of religious organizations. At this stage, discussion of the role of faith-based organizations and their relationship with government in the provision of social services is downplayed or even ignored. There is, however, growing emphasis on a greater role for the nonprofit sector in the welfare state. Inasmuch as religious organizations are acknowledged as being part of this sector, it seems the primary motive, so far, has been to find ways of decreasing public responsibility for social welfare.

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