Election Series, No. 3
This article continues our online series of election-year commentaries by American and international writers. Some articles will evaluate or compare the presidential candidates; others will examine issues that seem most important for voters to consider. We welcome your response to any of the articles, and, with your permission, we will post some of them as commentaries in their own right. The series will run until shortly before Election Day.
No. 3—August 22, 2008
Equal Treatment for Faith-Based Organizations, or Not?
by Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Director of Faith-Based Policy Programs, Center for Public Justice
One way or another, the next president will have a faith-based initiative. In the United States most social services that government pays for are delivered by private organizations, and many of those organizations are religious. What are the appropriate terms or rules for the collaboration of those organizations with government? That has been the core question in efforts to expand and improve the federal government’s partnership with faith-based service organizations at least since the time of the first enactment of Charitable Choice as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.
To more effectively engage faith communities, the government must reform the rules attached to its grants and payments for social services. That was the inspiration of the Charitable Choice provisions, crafted by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton to govern three federal programs. It was also the inspiration of the Equal Treatment regulations, similar to Charitable Choice, that were proposed and implemented by the Bush administration to govern the other federal social service programs. Through these dozen years of reform, for the sake of better services for the needy and to meet the requirements of the Constitution’s First Amendment, the rules for government’s partnerships with faith-based organizations have been made more respectful of their religious identity and standards—not biased to faith and against secular organizations but rather conformed to a standard of equal treatment.
Will the next president maintain this trajectory of extending religious freedom?
Senator Barack Obama
The big commitment to expanding faith-based social services has been announced not by the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, but by his Democratic challenger, Senator Barack Obama. In a major speech on July 2, Sen. Obama promised to give federal partnerships with faith-based and community groups a higher profile than Bush has done, with a $500 million special summer learning program that will utilize those groups to help disadvantaged students. He promised to ensure that only effective programs would receive federal support and proposed using experienced nonprofits to teach novices how to improve services and fundraising.
Here is a detailed and robust commitment to enlarging federal support for the good work accomplished daily by religious charities—a surprising stance by the candidate of a party that has in the main opposed the Bush faith-based initiative. But the religious freedom aspects of the Obama proposal, as unveiled thus far, are troubling.
Sen. Obama will require faith-based organizations that collaborate with government to serve all, without regard to religion. That’s the current standard and, in any case, a principled commitment of most faith-based organizations. The organizations cannot use the funds to pay for religious instruction or evangelism. This, too, is the current standard for most federal programs. But the Bush administration has experimented with ways to enable faith-based organizations to offer federally supported services that include religious elements while ensuring that beneficiaries have another choice, a possibility already contemplated by Charitable Choice. There is no indication, at least yet, that an Obama administration would continue that faith-friendly progress. And Sen. Obama has proposed one additional principle: “Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.”
This proposed sweeping federal restriction has sparked much opposition. Many faith-based organizations consider it essential to be able recruit only employees who share their religious commitments. They agree that job applicants should not be rejected for irrelevant reasons but argue that religious beliefs and views are central, not marginal, for faith-based organizations. Such organizations are already excluded from federal programs like Head Start that include a similar prohibition. The prospect of extending the religious staffing ban to the wide range of social-service programs has provoked an outcry from evangelical, Catholic, and Jewish leaders and organizations. What Sen. Obama has proposed so far promises expanded faith-based partnerships but undermines that goal by proposing to constrict rather than safeguard the religious freedom of participating faith-based organizations.
Senator John McCain
Senator John McCain, by contrast, has strongly defended institutional religious freedom. But he has yet to say how he would make that commitment practical in the federal government’s operations.
Sen. McCain has spoken warmly of the community-serving work of faith-based organizations. He has positioned himself as a “compassionate conservative” like President Bush did as a candidate in 1999-2000, talking about the need for government to assist Americans who are unable to make it on their own—while supporting, rather than taking over from, private groups and private enterprise. And, in response to Sen. Obama’s proposed ban on religious staffing, Sen. McCain issued a strong statement defending religious staffing by faith-based organizations that agree to help the government serve the needy.
But he has issued no plan of action. He has said the Bush faith-based initiative is successful and that he will “continue along the model of what the president has done.” But given the bitter opposition of many powerful groups, the secularizing pull on government agencies, and the eight years of Democratic opposition in Congress to the Bush faith-based initiative, much more will be needed than simply a desire to maintain the Bush plan. Even maintaining the Equal Treatment status quo will require creative and constant attention. And further reform is needed: President Bush’s steps to enable the government to support faith-integrated services in keeping with constitutional standards are only initial moves. The Bush administration laid a solid foundation. What structure does McCain propose to build on it?
A challenge and opportunity for faith communities and faith-based organizations
Beyond the vital question of the rightful rules that should govern the flow of government funds to faith-based social-service organizations lies a larger set of equally urgent questions concerning government regulation of religious organizations. Should a faith-based adoption agency be able to place children only with married man-woman couples? Under what circumstances can a hospital or medical practice legitimately refuse on religious grounds to perform certain procedures? Should a faith-based organization be free not to include “reproductive services” in the health-care benefits package it offers to employees? Should accrediting agencies be required to respect the religious mission and standards of religious colleges? Can a religious student club at a law school or private college insist that its officers be practicing believers? Some legislation and regulations, some court cases, and many increasingly loud and powerful voices answer these questions in the negative, insisting that sweeping nondiscrimination rules must override the freedom of religious organizations to be different.
The next President will not be able to avoid taking sides, and making policy, on these complex and controversial matters. Protecting religious freedom, whether or not government funds are involved, ought to be his deep commitment. Will that be the deep commitment of the next President and his administration?
A presidential campaign is an appropriate and fitting time for big questions about the federal government’s relationships with faith-based organizations to be put on the table. In their different ways, both candidates have issued a challenge to faith-based organizations and to everyone committed to a thriving role for those organizations in society. What policies and programs will enable to them to flourish? How can their rightful freedom be safeguarded while protecting the rights of beneficiaries and the public trust? How will the next administration protect institutional religious freedom in the government’s practice of regulation and funding?
Both candidates have shown an admirable willingness to talk about their commitment to faith-based organizations and both have offered a vision of what the federal government should do in this area. Now is the time for faith communities, faith-based organizations, and associations of faith-based service providers to tell the candidates where they stand and what is required for justice to be done.
Obama’08, Partnering with Communities of Faith.
“Obama Seeks Bigger Role for Faith Groups,” New York Times, July 2, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/us/politics/02obama.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1215007203-Xl5w12CSidBYZadyNyZGdQ&pagewanted=print
McCain Campaign, “Statement by McCain Campaign on Faith Based Initiatives,” July 2, 2008. http://www.johnmccain.com/Informing/News/PressReleases/783251c0-4f78-4ff6-bb1d-bacf234fd8c2.htm
“The [New York] Times Interviews John McCain,” July 11, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/us/politics/13text-mccain.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1218463416-PSEu7XI9FH9CLzJ2bsLAMg
Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies directs faith-based policy programs at the Center for Public Justice. He is the author (with Dave Donaldson) of A Revolution of Compassion: Faith-Based Groups as Full Partners in Fighting America’s Social Problems (2003).