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

Don't Backslide on the Faith-Based Initiative

Stanley Carlson-Thies


January 5, 2007

Although you'd never know it from the press, the faith-based initiative is a great success story. Reporters have focused on the lack of legislation, on litigation pressed by anti-religion groups, and on the lack of White House proof that billions of dollars are newly flowing to religious charities. In the meantime, great progress already has been made, via changed administrative rules, reformed practice, and court decisions, toward the goal of equal opportunity for faith-based organizations to partner with the government to serve the needy.

A dozen years ago, constitutional expert Michael McConnell described federal grant programs as "relentless engines of secularization." Faith-based organizations that officials regarded as "too religious" were excluded from taking part, and religious organizations that made it past that hurdle had to take care not to appear too devoted to their religion.

No longer. Thanks to the reforms of the faith-based initiative, stretching back into the Clinton years and grounded on the US Supreme Court's acceptance of the neutrality interpretation of the First Amendment, officials are required to make their decisions without bias against faith-based organizations, no matter how obvious the religious characteristics are. And, though in most government programs the organizations must keep religion out of the government-funded social services, the regulations protect their freedom to offer voluntary religious activities.

Moreover, despite heated opposition, the White House has bolstered the ability of faith-based organizations receiving federal money to ensure that their employees support their religious character. This is a key reform, although few faith-based groups want to become a target by making a public fuss about the issue. Some critics claim the reform wasn't needed because savvy organizations know how to determine applicants' religion without ever asking the question, but deceit shouldn't be needed to enjoy a constitutional right. On the underlying principles, a New York federal court in 2005 sided with the White House, not its opponents.

Of course, obtaining federal money is hardly the solution to every religious charity's resource needs. But when the government is seeking private partners, it should be the choice of the religious organization whether or not to participate—and the price of admission shouldn't be the need to suppress its religious character.

Much remains to be done. Not all state and local agencies respect the equal treatment rules when they use federal funds to buy services. As adverse court decisions have shown, it isn't always clear to government or to faith-based organizations where to draw the line on religious activities. And many more government programs should be shifted to indirect funding such as vouchers so that our tax dollars can go to social services that incorporate religion.

Still, great gains have been made. The federal standard is now equal opportunity without suppressing religious characteristics. That's a great change, although it will take time for many faith-based organizations to get over their skepticism about government and gain the competence to seek federal funds.

The new Democratic Congress includes many who have been critical of the faith-based initiative, concerned that people seeking help might be forced into religion and that qualified applicants will be arbitrarily excluded from government-supported jobs at faith-based organizations. They've pointed up the injustice of inviting more competitors to seek a slice of the same-sized pie. Fair enough. The size of the federal social service budget does need a careful look. Protections for beneficiaries may need more careful implementation. And it won't be a surprise if this Congress decides not to expand the religious staffing freedom. But there can be no excuse for regress. Members of Congress: faith-based organizations are counting on you not to backslide on the gains of the faith-based initiative!

—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.”