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

The Faith-Based Initiative After 2008

Stephen Lazarus


March 16, 2007

Opponents of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiative hope that the inauguration of a new president in January 2009 will put an end to successful reforms that have outlawed government discrimination against faith-based organizations. They will most likely be disappointed.
In the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, the leading presidential candidates of both parties expressed their strong support for government partnerships with faith-based organizations (FBOs) to serve the public good. During his administration, President Bush has built on that consensus and on laws enacted during the Clinton administration to introduce policy reforms that now permit government and faith-based organizations to collaborate in new ways that honor the distinct roles that each has to play in serving people in need and in building stronger communities.
These new partnerships will not disappear anytime soon. Thanks to presidential executive orders and leadership within agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and eight other federal agencies, equal treatment for FBOs is becoming the normal way government works with its community partners. Also, the basic legal principles on which the Initiative relies are becoming more firmly established as the Supreme Court moves decisively away from strict separationism to the principle of equal treatment as the new government standard. A future administration will not find it easy to go back to the days when officials could arbitrarily label some faith-based organizations as just too serious about their faith to be entrusted with public funds.
Furthermore, the Initiative has sparked new developments at federal, state, and local levels that will be difficult to reverse. Democratic and Republican Governors in over 25 states have launched state-level faith and community offices or appointed liaisons. Similar efforts to reach out to grassroots community and faith-based organizations have been initiated by mayors in cities across the country. In the past ten years, faith-based organizations have become valued partners in hundreds of federal and state programs under new revised rules that require government to respect the religious freedoms of FBOs and the people they serve.
The faith-based initiative has a future. But it also has a major fight on its hands that will determine its long-term success or failure. The central question at stake is: on what terms will the service of FBOs be welcomed by government? Two different visions are now competing to shape public policy. One welcomes real diversity in social services. FBOs of all kinds are invited to add their distinctive faith-based services and methodologies to the range of social services government supports. Because it is recognized that they are not an arm of the government but nongovernmental organizations with separate identities and missions, they are free to develop programs fully consistent with their religious visions and to continue to use religious criteria to hire staff fully committed to their programs' faith and principles.
The other vision welcomes FBOs to the table, but only if they will first play by the old secularizing rules that the Initiative removed. Under those rules, FBOs can offer services as part of government programs, but they must first sideline their faith and also give up their freedom to select the staff that best fits with their mission. Faith is assumed to be irrelevant to the delivery of public services. But that assumption is a serious mistake, say FBOs.
The second approach departs radically from the current trajectory of the faith-based initiative. Such a bargain would end any possibility for true pluralism, undermine the mission of FBOs, and set back important gains made in recent years. If this approach gains the upper hand, the initiative will be headed in the wrong direction to a questionable and bleak future.

—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.”