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

A Faith-Based Christmas Package

Stephen Lazarus


December 3, 2001

Amidst Thanksgiving festivities, President Bush visited a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. to announce more than one billion dollars in federal assistance to the homeless, "the largest such aid package in U.S. history," according to press reports (UPI, Nov. 20). The event also signaled that the President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative remains a top domestic priority, even though it has received little media attention since the September 11th attacks. A look behind the headlines confirms that the Initiative is not only alive and well but is steadily advancing fundamental changes in how government relates to faith-based and other neighborhood organizations.

First, in only his third week in office, the President directed federal agencies to review their programs for any barriers that hinder the work of community groups that seek to work with government. In August, the White House released its report, Unlevel Playing Field, documenting 15 obstacles and "a widespread bias against faith- and community-based organizations in federal social service programs."

The barriers include: unjustified discrimination by government agencies against some religious organizations applying for funds; a failure to honor the rights religious organizations have in federal law; and a funding gap between government and the grassroots, such that "smaller groups, faith-based and secular, receive very little federal support relative to the size and scope of the services they provide." Currently, cabinet secretaries at five departments (Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Justice, Labor) are developing reform plans to foster better cooperation and implement systemic changes in policy and practice.

Second, the White House is working with states to strengthen compliance with Charitable Choice—new federal guidelines adopted by Congress several times since 1996 to guarantee faith-based organizations the same access to federal funds that other organizations have. Several states have launched task forces to identify any barriers that hinder the full participation of faith-based and community organizations in state social service efforts. States like New York, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin have all developed their own initiatives to create a level playing field and ensure that faith-based organizations are not left out. Sixteen states have also designated staff members to serve as liaisons to provide assistance to faith-based and other groups new to working with government. Governors in four states—Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas—have issued executive orders to implement Charitable Choice and ensure that government respects the independence and religious character of faith-based organizations that work with government.

Finally, in another promising sign of progress, the President has asked Congress to pass legislation by Christmas to provide additional support to "neighborhood healers" fighting battles here at home. The proposal would create a million-dollar Compassion Capital Fund to provide technical assistance for organizations seeking to collaborate with government programs. It would add tax incentives to increase donations to food banks and other grassroots organizations serving the needy. The bill would also make it easier for faith-based and other groups to obtain federal non-profit status, by creating a new 501(c)3 "EZ Pass" category.

The House passed a version of the President's plan this summer. Now Senators Lieberman (D-Ct.) and Santorum (R-Pa.) are at work on a Senate version. As Senator Lieberman put it recently, by advancing the Initiative one step further, Congress can give all those less fortunate in our communities a welcome "Christmas/Hanukkah" gift this December.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Policy Associate
   Center for Public Justice


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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.”