Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Faith-based Initiative—Round Two



March 7, 2005

In a major speech last week to community leaders and policymakers, the President outlined new priorities for the Faith-based and Community Initiative for his second term. Absent from these priorities, however, is any plan to increase overall social service spending. The President's budget proposes cuts in many social programs. Could it be then, as some critics suggest, that the Initiative is really only smoke and mirrors after all, big talk but no action?

No, the real story is more complicated than that. It is true, of course, that faith-based organizations (FBOs) can only do their transformative work if they have access to sufficient public and private resources. A closer look at the budget shows that funding levels for many other programs remain constant. Programs for the homeless and refugees receive modest to significant increases. Congress, too, will soon have its say. Above all, Bush's four priorities show that the real genius and impact of the reforms cannot simply be measured in dollar figures. Equally necessary and perhaps more ambitious is the initiative's ultimate intent—revolutionizing how government works with community groups to meet the most pressing needs. We must ask not only "How Much?," but also "In What Way?" should government do its vital work.

The President's priorities are timely and on target. The lion's share of federal funding is administered by state and local officials who bear responsibility to ensure that FBOs have access to funds under the administration's new, equal opportunity guidelines. However, most states still lag behind in implementing these new regulations. As one top priority, the White House will now work more closely with state and local governments to ensure that faith-based organizations have an equal chance to obtain public funds designed to help the homeless, heal the drug addicted and transform broken lives, families and communities. Greater coordination and accountability are urgently needed and are long overdue.

Second, the President advocated the greater use of vouchers in after-school programs and services for youth and the homeless. Some critics have a visceral reaction against the V-word. Yet, for over a decade parents have used vouchers to choose child care by FBOs and secular groups. Vouchers maximize the freedom of organizations to be fully faith-based without raising constitutional red flags under the Supreme Court's often incoherent rulings. Vouchers empower the needy to make their own choices.

Third, the Administration advocates tax incentives to stimulate greater charitable giving to grassroots groups. The President's budget includes provisions that promote giving to food banks and permit citizens to donate a portion of their retirement accounts to charities without incurring tax penalties. This priority properly reflects that the government can use several means at its disposal to encourage the work of the "Armies of Compassion"—‚including tax reform and not only direct government funding.

Finally, the President committed himself to defend FBOs against the attacks of some members of Congress who argue that religious organizations should not be permitted to use religious criteria in hiring staff to run their programs if they receive public funds. Here again, the "How" details of government partnerships are crucial. Without this basic protection, many FBOs could easily lose their distinct identities and sense of religious mission. Faith-based leaders last week cheered the President's renewed promise to ensure that he will honor the principle that they and not the government should control their hiring policies.

Congress should have a vigorous debate about appropriate spending levels. The President, to his credit, has now launched a vigorous debate about how to fix the way government works.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Policy Associate
    Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”