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Congress Should Keep Charitable Choice in the Community Services Block Grant Program

The federal Community Services Block Grant program (CSBG) provides federal funding to states to organize in poorer communities specialized organizations called Community Action Agencies (CAAs). These Agencies provide anti-poverty services and they also collaborate with existing community organizations and religious groups that provide their own services to help people and families develop out of poverty. The Community Action program, in which residents and organizations of a poor community are themselves to help guide the efforts meant to help them, stems back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty.

In order to make the program more effective, Charitable Choice language was added to CSBG in 1998 in a reauthorization bill co-sponsored by Republican Senators Dan Coats and Jim Jeffords and Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy and Christopher Dodd. They added the Charitable Choice language to ensure that state and local governments and CAAs will not exclude faith-based organizations in CSBG-funded activity. As the Senate report on the bill said, faith-based organizations have always played a key role in assisting poor families and communities. They know the local community and help to make services accountable to the community. Protecting participation by houses of worship and other faith-based organizations in CSBG funding ensures that the procurement process is fully competitive and that CAAs will utilize the most effective service providers.

Congress had added Charitable Choice to the TANF program two years before for the same reasons. Both programs are supposed to empower people to develop out of poverty. Making sure that faith-based organizations of all faiths are welcome to the process is vital. Charitable Choice gives specific directives to government to make sure that there is no bias when faith-based organizations compete for funding, it protects these organizations’ religious character, and it protects the rights of people seeking services. The presence of this detailed provision in the law is like a billboard announcing a welcome for faith-based organizations to compete.

Unfortunately, the CSBG reauthorization bill now before the House of Representatives, H.R. 5129, the Community Services Block Grant Modernization Act of 2021, would strip the Charitable Choice provision and substitute for it a mere sentence. This would send the very negative message that Congress does not strongly value the social good of faith-based organizations nor does it wish to strongly protect their religious character in a balanced way.

One group, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), has been working for decades to eliminate the Charitable Choice language in the three federal programs where it exists, and the group objects to the similar principles that are embodied in Equal Treatment and Equal Opportunity regulations that govern most federal social spending. CARD claims that Charitable Choice, and by extension, these regulations with the same principles, is a “highly controversial policy.” CARD wants to make it controversial. In fact, Charitable Choice was signed into law four times by President Bill Clinton, and the Equal Treatment/Equal Opportunity regulations based on Charitable Choice have been endorsed with few changes by Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden. These are consensus principles, not extremist oddities.

Some in the Community Action movement claim that removing the Charitable Choice provision will have little effect because few faith-based organizations get funding from the CSBG program anyway. If that claim is right, then it should be a strong signal to Congress to take a deep look into what practices and policies are marginalizing faith-based organizations. They are supposed to have an equal opportunity to compete for CSBG funding and to become Community Action Agencies themselves. If they are being kept away, then what Congress ought to do is fight the bias, not eliminate Charitable Choice.

IRFA submitted a letter to a hearing on H.R. 5129 organized by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor. We are working with others to contact House and Senate offices about the importance of keeping Charitable Choice in the CSBG program.

If your faith-based organization or house of worship works well with the local Community Action Agency, consider telling your Member of Congress about the good partnership and why it is valuable for the community. If, instead, your organization has been excluded or discouraged when the local CAA is deciding which organizations will get its funding, consider telling that story to your Member, urging that Charitable Choice be kept and that other barriers be investigated so that they can be removed. You can use IRFA’s short memo on Charitable Choice in CSBG when you contact your Representative or Senator.

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