The 'Faith-Based' Initiative

Churches, Social Services And Your Tax Dollars


In recent years, elected officials have increasingly advocated giving public funds to religious institutions to provide social services. During his tenure in the White House, President George W. Bush made the “faith-based” initiative a top priority of his domestic policy. Today, President Barack Obama advocates continuing the initiative with certain revisions. Fundamentalist Christian groups are pushing for broad public funding without adequate controls on how the money is used. The rights of every American are at stake. Here’s why.

America’s Founding Fathers strongly believed in a clear separation between church and state. They gave us a Constitution that forbids government to support or oppose religion, leaving Americans free to follow their own consciences when it comes to matters of faith. In the words of the First Amendment, government shall make “no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

Churches and other houses of worship are free to spread their beliefs. But they are expected to raise their own funds through the voluntary contributions of the faithful. Taxation to support religion and religious endeavors was forbidden under the Founders’ constitutional framework. No American should be compelled through taxation to subsidize any religion.

In 1811, President James Madison vetoed a congressional bill that incorporated an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and gave the church authority to care for the poor and to educate poor children. Although the measure allocated no public funds to the congregation,

Madison – widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution – said it would “be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.” Madison later vetoed a bill giving a Baptist church a parcel of public land in Mississippi, asserting that this, too, would violate the First Amendment. Clearly, Madison was no supporter of “partnerships” between religion and government.

As decades passed, some officials have sometimes taken a less separationist approach to government funding of religious social-service agencies. In its 1899 Bradfield v. Roberts decision, the Supreme Court allowed public money to go to a Catholic hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1988, the high court ruled 5-4 in Bowen v. Kendrick that religiously affiliated agencies could receive government aid as long as the money was not spent to promote religion.

In 1996, then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft steered through Congress so-called “charitable choice” provisions intended to allow religious groups to garner federal funding without proper civil rights and civil liberties safeguards. Ashcroft, an ally of the Religious Right, wanted faith-based providers to be able to hire and fire based on religion, even in programs supported by taxpayer dollars.

The Ashcroft proposal ignited a debate that continues today. President Bill Clinton opposed key aspects of the Ashcroft plan and issued signing statements that kept some of its more dangerous features in check.

Things changed dramatically in 2001. President George W. Bush unveiled a comprehensive “faith-based” initiative as a top priority of his administration. Under his plan, Bush sought to expand charitable choice policies throughout the federal government. Publicly subsidized religious charities would be allowed to engage in employment discrimination based on religion, and public funds could be used to pay for construction and repair of buildings used for religious worship.

In a series of speeches, Bush asserted that faith-based groups are more effective and cost less than their secular counterparts. Although the president offered no objective data to support these claims, he and other administration officials repeated them over and over.

Houses of worship are better off using their own funds for social-service projects. Privately raised money preserves the independence of religious groups, increases congregational vitality and allows for prayer and evangelism in these programs if the sponsoring organization chooses.

But skepticism remained. Congress refused to adopt the Bush plan. Undaunted, Bush issued executive orders and regulatory changes carrying out much of his agenda without congressional approval.

It didn’t take long for broad opposition to Bush’s approach to surface. Some opponents feared that people in need would be subjected to religious pressures or forced to attend religious services before getting help. Others objected strongly to using public funds to subsidize religious bias in hiring. Still others worried that faith-based plans would entangle houses of worship in the most unpleasant aspects of partisan politics.

This last fear proved to be especially foresighted. It soon came to light that under Bush, promises of faith-based money were being dangled in front of religious communities in return for political support.

In 2002 and 2004, staffers from the White House faith-based office appeared at rallies alongside Republican candidates, implying to voters that the best way to get faith-based grants was to support the GOP.

Faith-based grants were also used to win over administration critics. TV preacher Pat Robertson was an early opponent of the initiative, asserting that churches would become dependent on government aid, which would become “like a narcotic.” Robertson stopped voicing these concerns, however, after his Operation Blessing charity was given a $1.5 million grant.

Payoffs such as this may have persuaded some opponents, but most Americans have remained wary of the faith-based approach. Public-opinion polls reflect widespread uneasiness over key aspects of the initiative. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll, 61 percent of Americans say groups that encourage religious conversion should not be eligible for public funding. A 2009 Pew poll found an overwhelming 74 percent say organizations that hire only people who share their religious beliefs should not receive government grants.

The question of hiring bias is especially important. President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned government contractors from engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin. The Bush faith-based initiative blithely discarded a key part of this rule, permitting religious groups to take tax funds yet reject job applicants with the “wrong” views about religion. Americans realize that this is fundamentally unfair.

Bush’s plan drew support from the Religious Right and a few conservative denominational leaders who insisted that religious organizations should be able to take public funds while engaging in job bias.

But opponents mobilized as well. Religious, civil liberties, civil rights and social-service advocacy groups came together to address the issues of hiring bias and proselytism with public funds. They formed the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) to educate the American people about these issues and lobby Congress for appropriate legal safeguards.

Many religious groups are active in CARD. The religious community has an important role to play in alerting Americans to the dangers of the faith-based initiative. Informed clergy are well aware that America’s great tradition of separation of church and state has led to a flourishing of religious diversity and freedom of conscience. They are alarmed at any proposal that would undermine the church-state wall.

These religious leaders know that religion does best when it supports itself. They are aware that churches dependent on the state for funding become lethargic and run the risk of losing their prophetic voices. Religion does best when it is supported by voluntary contributions.

Response To The Faith-Based Initiative

“I think there has to be a strong wall, a solid wall between church and state. I don’t want to see religious groups out trying
to convert or proselytize with federal dollars.”
– U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia

“Once a religious institution comes to be favored for grants, they can relax in their efforts to raise funds through private means. And the focus of their mission slowly changes... If you love and favor religious charity, and want to see it thrive, keep it privately financed.”
– The Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Catholic Priest and president of the Action Institute

“I don’t think most people expect that you can apply for a job paid for by the federal government and be told, ‘Oh, no,
we don’t hire people of your religion.’”
– U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia

“The idea that faith-based groups should have special entree to government funding just makes me twitch. It makes me twitch when groups funded with public funds will only hire their own members, or use the funds to advance sectarian
– The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Americans United for Separation of Church and State believes that in an ideal world, there would be no government- sponsored faith-based initiative. The concept of a federal office aimed at finding ways to funnel tax money to religious groups is impossible to square with our country’s tradition of separation of church and state.

Houses of worship are better off using their own funds for social-service projects. Privately raised money preserves the independence of religious groups, increases congregational vitality and allows for prayer and evangelism in these programs if the sponsoring organization chooses.

Government funding inevitably brings regulation and threatens the integrity of religion. None of this is in the best interest of faith groups or the taxpayers.

If a religious group decides it wants to receive tax funds anyway, steps should be taken to respect the separation of church and state. Houses of worship should set up a separate non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization to administer those funds. It should be made clear that no evangelism or worship will be allowed in publicly funded programs. Finally, religious groups accepting governmental grants must agree to abide by the nation’s civil rights laws and give up the right to hire and fire on the basis of religious belief.

During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama expressed many of the same concerns. In a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, Obama said, “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion.”

When the president rolled out his version of the faith-based initiative in February 2009, however, he left the old Bush executive orders in place. That means billions in federal funds are being disbursed without much-needed safeguards. Administration officials have indicated that discrimination claims will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, instead of being barred by government- wide action. In November 2010, Obama issued an executive order making a few changes to the faith-based initiative, but leaving the discriminatory hiring policy intact.

Americans who support civil rights and civil liberties are calling on Obama to keep his commitment.

“I would rather there be no ‘faith-based’ office,” says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “But if it exists, it must comply with long established protections guaranteeing civil rights and civil liberties.”

Americans United urges the president, members of Congress and other elected officials to take concrete actions to protect the religious liberty rights of taxpayers and the disadvantaged and to ensure the independence and vitality of religion. We call for a high wall of separation between church and state and clear and effective civil rights and civil liberties safeguards for all faith-based initiatives.

For the latest news on faith-based funding, visit the Americans United Web site and sign up to receive our e-mail alerts. Please join us in this important work.