Restrictions on Religious Activities and Expression

Thinking of seeking government funding? Keep this in mind: usually the government money is “direct” funding—awarded by government officials to the organization—and then religious activities have to be kept separate from the government-supported social service. Government rants and contracts are examples of “direct” government funding. Sometimes, though, the funding is “indirect”—instead of the government selecting the provider, the person needing help is given a voucher or scholarship and allowed to make his or her own choice of organization to provide the social service. When the funding is “indirect” like this, then the faith-based organization is free to incorporate religion into the services the person with the voucher will receive. For more on “indirect” funding, go here: Indirect government funding: freedom for faith-based social services.

What is the “separation” requirement when the government funding is “direct”—the usual way an organization gets government money to provide a social service? It means no prayer when starting the government-funded program, not focusing on  religious stories and teachings, and being careful that when a participant asks a religious question the whole session isn’t changed over from providing, say, job training, to instead become a session in religious instruction.

This limitation on religion doesn’t mean that a government-funded faith-based organization must suppress all religion. A religious motivation for service is acceptable, of course. And the federal rules are emphatic that voluntary religious activities, separate from the government-funded service, can be offered. Similarly, if a participant asks about religion, the question should receive an answer. But activities like prayer, religious discussions, and study of holy scriptures cannot be part of the social service that the government supports.

The limitation is due to court rulings interpreting the First Amendment. It has another rationale, too.  Remember, by accepting government funds, an organization agrees to serve all who need help, whatever their religion or lack of faith.  Thus, some, or even many, who arrive for the government-funded service may object to the organization’s religion. The services provided need to be helpful for all, including those who object to religion.

So, when the government funding is “direct,” keep the religious activities separate from the services funded by government, and then invite people to take part, if they wish, in those separate religious activities. Remember, though: there has to be a clear separation. It isn’t enough to simply tack on an optional secular activity to a program designed with religious activities as integral elements of the social service. Instead, if your organization has been offering faith-based services and now you think it is right to seek “direct” government funds, then you need to redesign the service from the ground up to serve a diverse audience without using religion. And then you might choose to create next to the government-supported social service the best religious activities you can to offer on a voluntary basis to people who may want more help, and a different kind of experience, than the government can “directly” fund.

If the restriction on religion seems intolerable or artificial, then don’t seek “direct” government funds. See if “indirect” government funding is available for your program, or stick with private funding. 

For details on the restrictions on religious activities and expression, go to the Guidelines on Religious Activities and Expression page.