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

At the Center, Not the Margins

James Skillen


May 10, 1999

Government shekels always bring government shackles. That's a common rejoinder when talk turns to faith-based organizations accepting government money to provide welfare services. The chief concern of the leaders of these organizations usually isn't a supposed constitutional barrier. They know that the First Amendment cannot require religious service providers to be uniquely disqualified from government funding. No, their big worry is that government money will bring secularizing rules, forcing them to drop their religious mission.

Preserving mission, of course, must be the number one concern. But there is also another key issue: the quality and character of the services offered to families that are now required to move from welfare to independence. Welfare officials, given the new task of helping people get on their feet rather than just maintaining them in dependence, are searching for new kinds of services and new kinds of partnerships.

Particularly with families that have long been on welfare, officials know that more is needed than merely a command to get a job or even formal job training. Welfare officials and the families they are charged to help need to find groups able to provide not only job training but also life-skills guidance and mentoring relationships. They seek services that touch the heart and build relationships.

That's one of the big stories of welfare reform: not just time limits, declining rolls, and rips in the safety net, but a sweeping movement to recast public welfare as a partnership with business and community groups and to offer programs that are relational and inspiring as well as formally competent. That's why government officials across the country have been inviting faith-based agencies and congregations to help provide services to welfare families.

And that's why Charitable Choice was built into the 1996 federal welfare reform law. Lawmakers knew there had to be a more hospitable environment so that faith communities could cooperate more extensively with public welfare. The Charitable Choice rules safeguard the religious character of faith-based organizations that contract with government to provide services while also protecting welfare families from religious coercion.

Congress added the same rules last fall to Community Services Block Grants, enabling community action agencies to contract with faith-based groups to serve low-income neighborhoods. And in this session of Congress, to the great chagrin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a veritable "avalanche" of bills incorporating the Charitable Choice rules will be considered, including a proposal from Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) to apply this religious liberty principle to all federal spending and all federal money sent to state and local governments.

As time limits are reached and the welfare rolls are increasingly filled with families facing multiple barriers to success, many officials are intensifying their outreach to the faith communities. How can we adequately serve these families, they ask, unless we can offer them services that are transformative and that will build long-term relationships? We've changed the rules that threatened the religious character of organizations that accept our money. Now we need your services to be included in the programs we offer to those families we seek to help.

In deciding whether to take government money, it is past time for faith-based organizations to take seriously the new protections offered by Charitable Choice. And it is past time for faith-based organizations to take just as seriously the needs of the families inside the public welfare system. Will effective faith-based programs be part of the array of services welfare officials can offer to families in need? The invitation to participate has been extended to faith-based groups. Will they continue to linger on the margins?

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   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.”