The House Education and Labor Committee on March 16 voted to recommend to the full House of Representatives H.B. 5129, a bill to reauthorize the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program while stripping Charitable Choice from it. Charitable Choice requires an equal opportunity for faith-based organizations to compete for federal funds, while protecting beneficiaries from religious indoctrination. As a precedent, it was added to CSBG in 1998 to ensure that such providers, who provide invaluable help in low-income communities, will not be excluded from funding. Removing Charitable Choice now would set a different—negative—precedent. The whole House, and then the Senate, should insist that Charitable Choice remain in CSBG.
A sign-on letter with 58 signatories, organized by IRFA, pressing for the retention of Charitable Choice, was sent to all of the committee members, to the House Democratic and Republican leadership, and other congressional offices, before the committee mark-up hearing. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) proposed an amendment to keep the Charitable Choice language in CSBG. Opponents claimed that the Charitable Choice language was not needed because the federal government has “equal treatment” rules modeled on Charitable Choice that would apply anyway. Some claimed that Charitable Choice is bad policy because it allows funded faith-based organizations to discriminate based on religion in hiring and in providing services. The amendment was defeated 28 (all Democrats) to 22 (all Republicans). The bill to reauthorize CSBG without Charitable Choice was approved 35 (27 Democrats and 8 Republicans) to 14 (all Republicans).
The use by faith-based organizations of religious criteria when they make employment decisions is actually protected by federal employment civil rights law (Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act)—the Charitable Choice language simply affirms that protection. It is true that federal social spending programs are governed by “equal treatment” or “equal opportunity” regulations that are based on the Charitable Choice principles—but CSBG has its own regulations, which would have to be rewritten if Charitable Choice is removed from the CSBG law. Better to have the relative permanency of law than the relative impermanence of regulations. The CSBG version of Charitable Choice does not explicitly protect beneficiaries seeking services from religious discrimination (the versions in the federal welfare law and in the main federal drug treatment program do have these protections)—but the CSBG regulations do incorporate that general Charitable Choice protection.
It was the last time the CSBG program was reauthorized by Congress, in 1998, that Charitable Choice was added. It was added by a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Dan Coats. They wanted to be sure that Community Action Agencies, which are funded by CSBG, work with the best service providers in their neighborhoods, without excluding faith-based based providers from the funding due to a misguided interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. With a Congress and public opinion now often less understanding of the great public good that faith-based organizations provide in our society, this is not the time to replace that great 1998 precedent with its reverse.