Strings Without Government Money

Government money (grants and contracts) come with many strings—conditions—some of which, despite the reforms of the faith-based initiative, may squeeze the religious identity and practices of a faith-based organization. But avoiding government money is no guarantee of avoiding secularizing conditions. Increasingly, secularizing restrictions are being applied as a condition of operating, even when no government money is involved.

Strings Despite Avoiding Government Money

The federal faith-based initiative during the past dozen years has made much progress in eliminating restrictions on federal grants that, in the past, excluded some faith-based groups from even being able to apply for funds, and that pressured eligible groups to conceal or downplay their religious identity.

Yet, at the same time as this progress was being made, faith-based organizations have been facing increasing pressure from government—outside the context of government funding.

The increasing pressure is coming from officials seeking to better protect various groups and from opponents of faith-based practices and organizations. They have been proposing and implementing rules that restrict and hamper faith-based organizations—even though the organizations receive no government money. The restrictions affect the ability of faith-based organizations to exist and to operate. They are typically imposed by state or local laws or regulations, rather than through federal action. The restrictions target “sectarian” and allegedly “discriminatory” groups and practices. And these restrictions are growing.

Examples of wrongly restrictive rules:

  • The “combined giving” campaigns in several states—campaigns that make it easy for state employees to donate from their own salaries to listed charities—have excluded various faith-based organizations. Why? Officials say these private organizations are discriminatory because they only provide services approved by that religion’s standards and only hire people committed to a particular religion.
  • In 2007 powerful activist groups tried to get Congress to require accrediting agencies to apply secular standards to religious colleges and universities, the same as these secular standards are rightly applied to secular higher education. Fortunately, Congress recognized this threat to our thriving and diverse higher education sector and instead told accrediting agencies that they must respect the “mission”—even if it is a religious mission—of the colleges and universities they evaluate.
  • In several states, every adoption agency is forbidden to “discriminate” on the basis of sexual orientation when selecting a family for a child who needs a new home—even if the agency has a religiously grounded conviction that kids should have both a mother and a father, and even though other agencies already specialize in gay adoptions.
  • Public universities, high schools, and law schools across the country have told religious student clubs that it is illegal—immoral discrimination—for them to insist that students who want to lead must actually believe the doctrines and live up to the moral standards of the club!
  • Some activists are working to persuade lawmakers that organizations that hire on a religious basis or that, because of their religion, only provide certain services, are “discriminatory,” don’t truly serve the public, and thus should not be given 501(c)(3) status with its tax benefits for donors and the organizations.
  • Sometimes legislators have rightly written into new laws exemptions from requirements that conflict with certain religions—but have wrongly designed the exemptions so that only churches and seminaries are eligible, not faith-based social service agencies or schools. These overly narrow exemptions make faith-based service organizations ineligible for the religious exemption if they serve everyone, rather than just people of the same religion as the organization!

Growing pressures on faith-based organizations.

Unfortunately, the pressure on faith-based groups to tone down or change their practices and messages is only growing.

A major reason is the supercharged anti-discrimination crusade: activists, courts, and officials determined that no person be refused service or employment based on their personal characteristics, such as religion, race, sex, age, or sexual orientation. Of course, everyone deserves dignified treatment, but this basically good idea can be taken to a destructive extreme. Always elevating the rights of the individual at the expense of organizations that have a particular identity and mission harms those organizations and the people who desire their distinctive services. The consequence will be a homogeneous society. In the name of protecting diversity, these misguided restrictions will end up driving diversity out of society.

How can a student faith-based club thrive if the state university says it cannot insist that its leaders be committed to the faith that inspires it? What sense does it make to require every adoption agency to serve gays who want to adopt, even though many women giving up a child, and many faith-based agencies, are firmly convinced that a mother-father family is best, and other agencies specialize in serving gay couples? It would be wrong to require every employer who provides health benefits to follow Catholic teaching and not pay for contraceptive services—so why is it right for some states to require Catholic nonprofits either to include contraceptive services in their health plans or else stop providing health benefits at all?

world vision faith

Speak Up! Faith-based organizations can avoid some unacceptable restrictions by avoiding government money. But some harmful strings will tie them up just because the organizations need a license to operate, have to obey the employment law because they have more than just a few employees, or want to make it easy for state employees to donate to their causes.

There is just one solution: persuading legislators and government agencies and courts that the restrictions, as good as they might sound in theory, shouldn’t be applied to faith-based organizations. The good goals have to be achieved some other way.

And who will persuade them to honor the religious freedom of religious organizations by choosing other ways to accomplish their goals unless faith-based organizations speak up?


Gregory Baylor and Timothy Tracey, “Nondiscrimination Rules and Religious Associational Freedom,” Engage, vol. 8, no. 3 (June 2007).

Carl Esbeck,Why Legislatures Should Accommodate Religious Freedom