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


No Quotas for Religion


James Skillen

09-13-1999


September 13, 1999

It seems like a good idea, doesn't it—special state and local programs to enlist faith-based groups to help welfare families and poor communities? After all, government programs that treat people as merely material creatures have hardly been rousing successes, while many churches, religious nonprofits, and inspired volunteers have been doing so much real and lasting good for their neighbors. Small surprise that many officials are searching for ways to bring religion back into the assistance equation. But a set-aside program for religious groups is not the way to do it.

For one thing, the US Constitution rules it out. The standard surely is not secularism in everything government touches. But neither may government play favorites among religions and worldviews. When welfare officials are seeking effective services, the criterion should be effectiveness, not some mystique of faith-based programs.

The special focus on faith groups is harmful, too, if it presumes that friendly gestures from government will conjure out of the faith communities a shining array of exemplary programs. But building effective, substantial, and expert services is a task of months and years. Faith communities are not in the magic business.

Yet the worst thing about government targeting faith-based groups is that it is too limiting. When state or local officials craft a special program to tap the benefits of faith-based help, the effect is to exclude religious organizations from all of the regular welfare and human services. We'll look to the churches for mentors, they seem to say, but when we buy services, we'll go elsewhere. A special niche for faith-based organizations is too confining.

What public officials ought to do, instead, when they search for services is simply to stop discriminating against organizations that refuse to hide their faith under a bushel. That's the Charitable Choice principle and requirement. Across the board, when state and local officials spend federal welfare funds, or Welfare-to-Work dollars, or Community Services money, they must let religious organizations have an equal chance to compete for the funds. And when religious groups are selected to provide services, officials can't then tell them to shuck their faith because they are now doing government work.

Charitable Choice is no guarantee of funds for churches and it is not a set-aside program for religion. It's simply the principle of nondiscrimination when government selects providers. Charitable Choice tells officials to look for effective help, not to start by asking if groups are religious or not religious.

Will the chosen services often be faith-based? If officials comply with Charitable Choice, there's every reason to expect so over time, not because faith is magic but because good faith-based programs reach people in a deeper and different way.

May officials never pay special attention to the faith communities? In fact they must be sensitive to religion when they search for service providers. After all, it was government's secularizing and exclusionary regulations that taught many faith-based groups to stay as far away as possible. It will take a lot of careful outreach by government to bridge that gap. And government needs to become administratively more supple if it is to work successfully with nonbureaucratic community groups, whether faith-based or secular.

So state and local officials should take special note of religion, starting by bringing their own procurement practices into compliance with Charitable Choice. But a special program to fund religious groups? A special category of involvement for people of faith? No thanks. That's too limiting. No quotas for faith: just let government focus on how best to help needy families and neighborhoods.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice



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