Nearly 20 years of contention over the relationship between faith-based charitable groups and federal agencies that dispense social service program grants may have moved toward agreement this week.
Proposed federal rules aimed at clarifying how taxpayer money is spent by faith-based nonprofits, as well as one allowing social services beneficiaries to request a secular social service provider, are drawing praise from key stakeholders in the field.
The suggested rules, announced Wednesday in a blog post by Melissa Rogers, who heads the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, would codify and extend requirements that religious charities separate any religious activities from government-funded social services.
A faith-based group offering a federally supported job training program can offer Bible study classes, but such classes "must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program," Rogers wrote.
Also, there can be no discrimination against a social services client "on the basis of religion or religious belief" the blog post stated, nor can there be any requirement that a beneficiary participate in any religious program, according to the new rules.
And, if someone comes to a religiously based social services agency seeking help but feels uncomfortable with the faith-related trappings of the group, the prospective rules require the faith group to refer that client to a secular program if asked.
The proposed rules, issued by the federal departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor and Veterans Affairs as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, cover a wide range of federal programs that for years have been made available to faith-based nonprofits. A 60-day comment period for each agency proposal is now open.
Striking a balance
The new rules were first suggested in a 2010 Executive Order issued by President Barack Obama, implementing recommendations from an Advisory Council formed to study the matter. The president wanted to more clearly delineate the rights and responsibilities of the nonprofits as well as beneficiaries, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who first headed the White House faith office under President George W. Bush and now directs the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.
"The question just was, in getting that service, would the beneficiary have to listen to a sermon while getting job training or before getting the meal," Carlson-Thies said. The new rules are "being extremely careful to make sure somebody coming for a service is not indoctrinated into religious language and activities that are not part of the service they came to get."
Michael De Dora, public policy director for the secularist Center for Inquiry, approves of the proposed rules.
"It's all about striking the right balance and I do believe these regulations will go further in striking the right balance," De Dora said. While he said there have been very few instances of beneficiaries feeling uncomfortable at a religious charity, it's important for those providers to clearly state religious practice or conversion isn't required to receive aid.
Finding that balance began when President Bill Clinton signed several welfare reform laws in 1996. Using the term "charitable choice," several of the bills were amended by Congress to specify that faith-based charities could not only compete for federal grants, but also maintain religious identity in the facilities used for those programs as well as hold to their tenets in the hiring of employees.
But religious groups could not use federal funds to proselytize for their faith, Clinton noted in a December 2000 signing statement for one appropriation measure. While the measure allowed religious groups to apply for federal substance abuse prevention and treatment grants, he noted, "this provision would be unconstitutional to the extent that it were construed to permit governmental funding of organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from their substance abuse treatment and prevention activities."
Such separation was sometimes difficult to maintain, critics said. The charitable choice initiative morphed into President George Bush's "faith-based initiative" White House office in 2001, and was positioned as a non-political effort to direct federal aid to effective, established administrators.
But the late David Kuo, who headed the office before breaking with the Bush administration, alleged there were partisan ramifications as well. Speaking with the CBS news program "60 Minutes," Kuo revealed that he had suggested using the faith-based office as a political tool for Bush's 2004 reelection to Ken Mehlman, a top political operative.
Kuo told reporter Leslie Stahl that Mehlman "just whipped off a bunch of names of particular (Congressional) races and said, 'We need to go there, there, there, there and there.'" Kuo said 19 of those races were won by Republican candidates, although Mehlman denied the accusation of partisan action by the faith-based office.
In written 2010 testimony to the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, the Rev. W. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United, said that by the end of the Bush Administration, "traditional safeguards that had protected religious liberty had been stripped, and civil rights protections barring the federal funding of religious discrimination had been abrogated."
Under the Obama administration, neither the White House office nor similar offices in a dozen federal agencies dole out money directly to faith-based charities. The offices instead provide resources on how such groups can apply for grants available to all qualified social service agencies.
By clarifying what can — and cannot — be done with federal money granted to a religious nonprofit for programs such as job training or substance abuse recovery, it's hoped the rules will end nearly two decades of controversy.
"The value of the regulations is that they create a level playing field for faith-based and secular organizations that wish to provide federally funded services," Galen Carey, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, which has been helping developing the new rules, told USA Today. "The rules show how the government can partner with faith-based organizations without violating any constitutional prohibitions on establishment of religion. We will study the new regulations and may submit official comments based on our review."
At least one religiously affiliated social services group said they already apply the proposed rules on separating the sacred and the secular.
Jatrice Martel Gaiter, executive vice president of the Volunteers of America, a self-proclaimed "church without walls" that seeks to help the nation's most vulnerable, said if a VOA client wants spiritual help, the group refers them to someone of their own faith. The organization has 33 affiliates in 48 states and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico operating over 400 programs, she noted.
"We are very meticulous in making sure we do not proselytize or provide spiritual guidance," Gaiter said. "Any spiritual program (offered) is in a separate facility at a time unrelated to the federally funded programs. No attempt is made to recruit participation" in such programs, she said.
A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities said "we are in the process of reviewing the impact that (the) announcement will have on our work." Officials of The Salvation Army were unavailable for comment, the evangelical Christian charity said.