Faith-based charities perform marvelous and effective work when it comes to helping the poor and leading people away from addictions, among other things.
The Catholic Church, for instance, provides much-needed relief work, just as its hospitals and schools provide lifelines for many. Alcoholics Anonymous, for its part, has helped many overcome addiction through its 12-step program, which is heavily influenced by faith-based principles.
It’s no wonder that, two decades ago, President Bill Clinton decided to take advantage of this by allowing religious charities to compete for federal grants, or that President George W. Bush expanded that effort under a program he called his faith-based initiative. Such services relieve government of a huge burden and often are more effective than public programs.
But the intersection of faith and government provoked justified concerns during the Clinton administration, and it should continue to do so today. Not, however, for the reasons many secularists would cite. In an age when government seems much more worried about violating the First Amendment through the appearance of an established religion than by restricting its free exercise through official sanction, faith-based groups put themselves at risk by joining hands with Washington.
Now the Obama administration apparently has brokered an agreement on how government and religious charities will intersect within the bounds of the Constitution. The proposed rules were announced in a blog post by Melissa Rogers, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and reported earlier this week by the Deseret News.
The rules offer reasonable accommodations. Religious charities may offer scripture study classes, but only if they are held separately from the programs that receive federal funding. No one receiving help must be required to attend a religious service or class, and anyone who is uncomfortable with the faith-based aspects of a particular program must be given referrals to a secular program offering the same service.
The head of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance said this is a way to carefully guard against indoctrination into “religious language and activities that are not part of the service they came to get.”
Which is fine, except when reliance on a higher power is an important part of a particular program. We are confident administrators of at least some of those programs could tell stories of people who came to them without the slightest interest in religion but who left with greater insights and abilities that blessed them both physically and spiritually.
The new rules seem to walk a reasonable line down this rocky path. Faith-based programs that receive government grants at least will be able to continue offering their services, but with an eye toward allowing people to opt out. It is good to have rules spelled out so both sides understand the boundaries.
It is unclear, however, what problem the administration is solving. As the Deseret News report notes, even an official with the secularist Center for Inquiry acknowledges there have been few complaints of anyone feeling uncomfortable at a religious charity.
We are glad that government recognizes the good that can come through religious-based charities and programs. The focus, however, must remain squarely on the clients and what will best help them return to meaningful and productive lives.