This week, the Obama administration took the first positive steps to reform faith-based initiatives within the government. These initial reforms go a long way to protecting the wall of separation between church and state and protecting the religious freedoms of the faith-based groups and the beneficiaries who use the services. I am hoping more reform is coming.
Today, the Obama Administration is taking an important step toward common-ground reforms that strengthen the partnerships the federal government forms with faith-based and community organizations for the purpose of serving people in need. Nine federal agencies are issuing notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) today that would clarify rules that apply to these partnerships and extend added protections for social service beneficiaries.
The proposed rules clarify the principle that organizations offering explicitly religious activities may not subsidize those activities with direct federal financial assistance and must separate such activities in time or location from programs supported with direct federal financial assistance. For example, if a faith-based provider offers a Bible study as well as a federally supported job training program, the Bible study must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program.
The NPRMs also propose new protections for beneficiaries or prospective beneficiaries of social service programs that are supported by direct federal financial assistance. In the proposed rules, the agencies set forth a notice to beneficiaries and prospective beneficiaries that informs them of these protections. These notices would make it clear, for example, that beneficiaries may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief or be required to participate in any religious activities and advises beneficiaries that they may request an alternative provider if they object to the religious character of their current provider.
At the same time, the NPRMs assure religious providers of their equal ability to compete for government funds and of continuing protections for their religious identity like the ability of providers to use religious terms in their organizational names and to include religious references in mission statements and in other organizational documents. The NPRMs also state that the standards in the proposed regulations apply to sub-awards as well as prime awards, and set forth definitions of “direct” and “indirect” federal financial assistance. These areas have been sources of confusion for some providers.
The agencies are encouraging interested parties to submit comments on the proposed rules during the next 60 days. Once those comments have been received and analyzed, the final rules can be issued. Separate from the rulemaking process, agencies are continuing to work toward other modifications to their guidance, practices and communications strategies consistent with the Executive Order.
The Faith-based initiatives were started during the Bush administration as a taxpayer funded bone to religious groups who provided social services – like food service or general welfare programs. There were no real rules to conform the program to the 1st amendment. Americans United has a great document detailing how wrong Bush’s program, until today, was:
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.
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.
President Obama’s office announced the rule changes this week, finally, but while a positive step, he did not address the hiring discrimination still allowed:
The most significant changes in these proposed regulations are the religious-liberty protections for beneficiaries of social-service programs. Under the proposal, for example, those receiving social services must be given written notice of their religious-liberty rights not to be discriminated against in taxpayer-funded programs on the basis of religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.
Lynn, who was part of a diverse task force that offered advice to the White House on how it should reform the rules that apply to these government partnerships, added that he is pleased the group’s recommendations were adopted and said he hopes there will be widespread support for these new religious-liberty protections.
While the proposed regulations are an improvement, they do not solve all the problems associated with the rules that govern the partnerships between government and faith-based social service providers. In particular, the Obama administration decided not to address the issues of federally funded religious hiring discrimination in the executive order or these proposed regulations. Therefore, the Obama administration still enforces Bush administration rules allowing faith-based organizations that get government grants and contracts to provide social services to reject qualified job applicants on religious grounds to work in those taxpayer-funded programs.
The requirement that beneficiaries of social-service programs be given written notice informing them of their religious liberty protections is a vast improvement from the previous rules.
Nine agencies will have a public comment period for the next 60 days. I urge everyone concerned about restoring the 1st amendment in faith-based social services funded by taxpayers should leave a comment on each one.
Just go to the White House announcement page and the links to the other agencies is at the bottom of the page.