The Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Can We Unplug It?

Rob Boston

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as a government-run “faith-based” initiative. A federal office that does nothing but look for ways to funnel mo ney to religious organizations is hard to square with the separation of church and state. But the reality is that we are way beyond that discussion.

The general idea behind a faith-based initiative is that government will give tax funds to religious groups and those groups will in turn provide some type of secular service to people in need. It never made a whole lot of sense. Why would religious groups want to provide nonreligious services? But the sad fact is that we lost this battle way back in 1899. In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bradfield v. Roberts, ruling that a Roman Catholic hospital in Washington, D.C., could receive government money to provide a secular service (health care, in this case) to the poor. It’s an old decision—and some of its central findings have been modified by later rulings—but the core finding of Bradfield remains intact: not all tax aid to religious groups is unconstitutional.

It took a long time for the principles enshrined in Bradfield to spread to other types of social-service programs. That’s because for many years the federal government simply had no interest in funding programs for the poor and disadvantaged on a massive scale. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society challenged that notion, and once these types of programs took hold in the federal government in the 1960s, it was inevitable that religious groups would be involved.

The system chugged along like this for years. Groups like Catholic Charities, various mainline Protestant relief agencies, and Jewish organizations took the money and offered services. They weren’t interested in winning new converts and didn’t pressure anyone to pray or attend religious services. They just wanted to help those in need. When it came to hiring people to staff these programs, they generally did not impose a religious test.

While not perfect, this setup was tolerable. Two things brought it crashing down. The first was the rise of fundamentalist religious groups in America during the 1980s. As mainline denominations lost members, the fundamentalists grew. Soon they were providing social services, too—only their programs were designed to convert as well as help.

The second factor was the presidency of George W. Bush. Bush’s faith-based initiative was his first domestic policy program. From the very beginning, it was marked by a curious dichotomy: Bush insisted that only secular services would be funded—then he would proceed to give speeches lauding the way religion can change lives and visit fundamentalist providers whose programs were anything but secular.

Was this mixed message deliberate? I think so. Naturally, some people got the idea that Bush might want to fund the fundamentalist groups that were his staunch political allies. They were right. I knew we were in trouble when television preacher Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing charity was awarded $1.5 million in faith-based funds despite its dubious track record of providing help.

Throughout his presidency, Bush continued to overturn long-standing rules. The federal government had long been wary of using tax funds to rehabilitate houses of worship. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, issued an opinion saying such funding was permissible under certain conditions.

Since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, federal contractors had been barred from discriminating on the basis of race or religion when hiring staff. Bush issued a new executive order lifting this ban in part and telling religious groups they could accept tax money and hire only members from their own faith tradition.

Bush also said, over and over again, that faith-based groups perform better than their secular counterparts. He never offered any objective evidence that this was so. He just repeated it constantly. The American public never questioned the assumption.

Can this mess be cleaned up? Can we bring a measure of separation of church and state to the faith-based initiative? I believe so. Adopting the following specific policy proposals would help.

  • Make it absolutely clear that no religious activity is to be funded with tax money—and back it up. Bush gave lip service to this idea, but there was much winking and nodding going on, too. He sent mixed signals by constantly praising the work of fundamentalist groups that changed people’s lives by converting them. If no purely religious activities were to be funded with tax funds under the faith-based initiative, why did Bush single out these groups? My guess is that no one bothered to monitor the amount of religious activity in funded programs. It’s time someone started. Groups that violate the rule should see the funding spigot turned off.
    During the Bush years, the General Accounting Office issued a report admitting that oversight of faith-based programs had been lax at best. There is a model for fixing this. Washington is loaded with “Beltway Bandits”—private firms that compete for government contracts to run various programs for federal departments like Education, Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services. These contracts are monitored. If these private contractors don’t execute them faithfully or violate the agreed-upon rules, they hear about it and can lose the contract. If secular businesses can meet these regulations, so can religious groups. After all, no one is forced to take part. If it’s too much of a burden, don’t apply for the money.
  • End all forms of tax-funded hiring bias. If a church wants to hire people from its own congregation for social-service programs, then it should fund those programs with private monies. Allowing the local Baptist church to place an ad in the paper saying “Help wanted for government-funded jobs. Must be Baptist to apply. No gays or single moms will be considered. Profession of faith and ministerial recommendation required” is grotesque. It offends civil rights and the values that most Americans hold dear.
  • Instill a healthy degree of skepticism. Some faith-based groups make astounding claims about their success rates. They assert, for example, that they can help a large percentage of addicts get off drugs or rehabilitate the majority of former prison inmates. These sorts of claims can be tested by independent experts. Groups that are not getting the job done—be they religious or secular—should lose their contracts.
  • Maintain a zero-tolerance policy for religious coercion. People who are in need—the homeless, the hungry, the jobless, the drug-addicted—are in a tight spot as it is. Any tax-funded religious group that conditions assistance on participation in religious worship must be cut off from government money. For good. No exceptions. No second chances.
  • End all public support for religious buildings. Under Bush, the U.S. Justice Department issued regulations stating that tax funds can actually pay for construction and renovation of buildings used for religious worship if there is a faith-based service program operating in them as well or the structures are deemed “historic.” This must stop. Houses of worship should always be funded with private dollars.
  • Stop assuming “If it’s religious, it’s good.” Under the old rules, when the government wanted a job done, it put out a request for proposals and allowed secular and religious groups to apply. The group with the best plan got the contract. These days, the assumption is often that faith-based groups should get preference merely because of the fact that they are faith-based. It’s almost as if there are faith-based set-asides. Let’s have no more of them.

Can these rules be implemented? Absolutely. Ironically, then-candidate Barack Obama expressed support for many of them during a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, on July 1, 2008. He insisted that the faith-based initiative and church-state separation could coexist as long as some ground rules were followed.

“First, if you get a federal grant,” Obama said, “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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

Sounds good. But once in office, President Obama began moving away from his previously expressed views. He has refused to overturn the Bush executive order and bar religious bias in hiring. Obama also created a twenty-five-member advisory council to consult with him on all things faith-based (and other issues). Some members represent the conservative evangelical community.

For some strange reason, it seems Obama is more interested in soliciting input from white evangelicals, 26 percent of whom voted for him in 2008, than secularists, 75 percent of whom supported him. I think it would be helpful if he heard more from secularists. The advisory council he has formed does contain some strong voices for church-state separation, but there’s always the need for more.

Obama has also said that he may consult with the Justice Department and White House attorneys on some of the thorny issues raised by the faith-based initiative. There is some cause for hope here. Attorney General Eric Holder is known to be a strong supporter of civil liberties. We can hope he’ll give Obama sound advice in this area (of course, there’s no guarantee the president will take it).

Finally, I would recommend an appeal to the conscience of the president. When Bush issued his executive order allowing religious groups to take tax funds and still discriminate on religious grounds when hiring, he did something truly radical. As I’ve noted, the rules that were overturned had been put in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were an early effort to put some real teeth into the nation’s civil-rights policy. It’s kind of ironic to see the nation’s first African American president back a policy that fosters a form of discrimination. We shouldn’t be afraid to point that out.

One thing I would not recommend doing right now is rushing into court with ill-conceived lawsuits. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, it is virtually impossible to challenge faith-based funding that emanates from the White House (as opposed to a congressional appropriation). The legal doctrine of “standing”—that is, the right to sue—has been seriously eroded. Let’s not add to that. Until we can get a more separationist Supreme Court to reconsider Hein, we are well advised to step carefully in the courtroom and bring cases only when the facts swing firmly our way and we are confident we can win.

In sum, we need to do what Religious Right groups do when a politician lets them down: rally the troops, apply some pressure, and push for a different result. Let’s begin by calling, writing, or e-mailing the White House. Urge President Obama to honor his vow to end hiring bias in tax-funded faith-based programs by overturning Bush’s executive order.

We need to spread the word about this. And as we do that, let’s remember that we have public opinion on our side (finally!). I’ve yet to see a poll indicating that the American people support taxpayer-funded religious discrimination. In fact, the numbers run 2 to 1 in our favor. (According to a Pew Research Center poll from 2008, 73 percent said religious groups should not be allowed to discriminate in hiring in publicly funded programs. Sixty-one percent oppose government funding of religious groups that pressure the disadvantaged to convert.)

Unfortunately, the faith-based initiative isn’t going away. Can we tame the beast and turn it into something less obnoxious than it has been? I believe so. Let’s get to work.

Rob Boston

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.


In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as a government-run “faith-based” initiative. A federal office that does nothing but look for ways to funnel mo ney to religious organizations is hard to square with the separation of church and state. But the reality is that we are way beyond that discussion. The …

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