Silence from Presidential Candidates on Faith-based Initiative

Silence from Presidential Candidates on Faith-based Initiative

Stanley Carlson-Thies, September 9, 2016

In the 2016 presidential election campaign, in the midst of all the speeches and commentary, there is an odd and deeply troubling silence:  no proposals for advancing the faith-based initiative.  Yet this 20 year old initiative concerns central issues of federal policy:  How to ensure that federal funding supports the most effective social services?  When the government awards grants and contracts, does the First Amendment require the exclusion of faith-based organizations, or rather government neutrality between religious and non-religious providers?  How can laws and regulations that govern civil society organizations respect Americans’ deep differences of conviction about human sexuality, marriage, and intimate relationships?

The faith-based initiative was a major topic of discussion the last two times no incumbent was running for re-election as president.  The initiative had its start during the Clinton administration, when Congress proposed—four times—and President Clinton signed into law each time “Charitable Choice” language to govern various federal programs.  Charitable Choice was designed to create a level playing field in federal financing of services, requiring officials not to be biased for or against faith-based competitors for funding but instead to always pick the most effective provider of welfare, drug treatment, and other services.  Charitable Choice specifically protects the religious character of faith organizations that receive federal funds, and it also specifically protects beneficiaries from religious discrimination and coercion.

In the 2000 presidential race, it was Democratic candidate Al Gore, the sitting vice president, who first spoke out on the topic, advocating in a speech at the Salvation Army in Atlanta that Charitable Choice should be expanded to additional social service programs.  He said he had come to see that faith can be ”essential to spark a personal transformation and to keep that person from falling back into addiction, delinquency or dependency.”  His Republican challenger, Texas Governor George W. Bush, set out his own proposals for expanded partnerships a few months later.

As president, Bush called for federal regulatory and program-design changes to “rally the armies of compassion,” making federally-funded services more effective by developing expanded partnerships with community organizations, whether faith-based or non-religious.  He created a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and counterpart Centers in major federal departments.  Through the regulatory process he instituted Charitable Choice-like Equal Treatment regulations to govern social-service spending across the federal government and to follow federal dollars that are sent to state and local governments to support social services.

Besides the new rules, the faith-based initiative also sparked a new determination that service programs, where possible, should utilize the distinctive qualities of faith-based and community-based organizations, such as their closeness to problems, the mission-dedication of employees, a holistic approach, and bonds of trust with neighborhood residents.  Overseas, the PEPFAR program, still in operation, uses federal funding to build partnerships between US relief and development organizations and local organizations, often religious, to deliver HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment services. The Access to Recovery program that was operated for a dozen years by many states used federal funding in the form of vouchers to offer to people needing drug treatment the chance to select from a range of services, including faith-based programs using religious means to promote addiction recovery.

In the 2008 election, again it was the Democrat, Barack Obama who came out first for the faith-based initiative.  Obama promised changes, including suppressing religious hiring in services funded by federal grants, but said that the initiative should be maintained because “The challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone.  We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

As president, he has renamed the initiative—it is now the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—and instituted a new advisory council of religious and secular leaders to advise the federal government on how best to develop partnerships in various service areas.

Despite intensive pressure, however, President Obama has not changed the religious hiring rules in federal grants, and his review of Equal Treatment regulations led earlier this year to new regulations across the federal government that only strengthen the Charitable Choice principles first adopted two decades ago.  On the other hand, some believe the faith-based initiative has taken on something of the character of a support group for the administration’s policies, and also would suggest the strong efforts during the Bush years to encourage novice organizations to consider partnerships and to train civil society organizations and government officials alike in the Equal Treatment rules have withered.

And, in the case of federal contracting, the Obama administration has in fact constrained religious hiring, by promulgating an Executive Order with a new ban on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) job discrimination, while not defining how this ban intersects with the existing exemption that permits religious federal contractors to only select applicants faithful to the contractor’s religious commitments.  Other administration actions to curtail SOGI discrimination and to advance its understanding of reproductive rights (e.g., the HHS contraceptives mandate) have also run up against the convictions and standards of many faith-based organizations.

Over three administrations, a strong and broad consensus has been created on the basic church-state rules that should govern federal funding that is awarded to civil society organizations by federal, state, or local agencies.  That consensus on rules rests on a broad agreement that the correct constitutional principle is governmental neutrality between religious and non-religious providers, in place of the former strict-separationist concept that government funds cannot flow to distinctly religious organizations. And yet this broad and strong consensus has become frayed as LGBT rights comes to the forefront.  How can the government—when it funds programs, when it regulates civil society organizations—ensure fair treatment to LGBT people and yet also uphold both public justice and the First Amendment rights of faith-based organizations that maintain a minority stance on human sexuality and marriage?

The next federal administration will not be able to avoid these two issues:

  • How to ensure that the Equal Treatment rules actually structure the expenditure of federal funds to support services provided by civil society organizations, and do not become mere rules in the rule book, little known and largely ignored?
  • How to ensure fairness for all, both LGBT and non-LGBT people, in the services that the government funds?  And fairness for all organizations, both morally progressive and morally conservative, when they compete for federal funding to support their services to our diverse public?

These should be key issues for every serious presidential candidate. Faith-based organizations play vital roles across the country, serving their neighbors on their own or in partnership with government. Federal regulations and funding can help civil society organizations to flourish or it can suffocate them, especially if they are faith-based organizations with convictions that are out of step with contemporary sexual mores.  Anyone who desires to serve as our next president ought to tell the voters how her or his administration will contribute to the flourishing, not the diminishing, of diverse faith-based services in our diverse country.