The Federal Faith-based Initiative: Good News is Hiding Behind No News
By Stanley Carlson-Thies
With little to no fanfare, the Trump administration for the last year has been slowly appointing new staff to the federal Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. More importantly, the administration has maintained the federal equal treatment regulations. This is good news for faith-based organizations and for religious freedom advocates because it means that religious service providers continue to have the same opportunity as secular providers to compete for federal funds and to collaborate with federal programs.
The faith-based initiative is based on a simple idea: the government’s social efforts will be most effective and efficient in partnership with religious and non-religious local organizations, many of which have been serving long before government programs were even considered. Civil society organizations serve people and neighborhoods in need, and can do so with special effectiveness because they are local, nimble, and have earned social capital with their communities. Many of them are faith-based and thus bring an extra dimension to the services they provide, and the relationships they develop.
To foster those partnerships, the federal government for more than two decades has crafted special rules that enable religious organizations to compete for and receive federal funds without sacrificing their religious character. Faith-based organizations can retain explicitly religious missions and foundational documents, with rare exceptions they can continue to staff based on faith, and they can even use explicitly religious spaces, such as a church sanctuary, to provide government-funded services, such as providing food or operating an after-school program.
The same rules that protect the capacity of religious organizations to stay true to their religious missions ensure that people in need, whatever their beliefs, are served. These “equal treatment” or “level playing field” rules were first enacted by Congress, and signed into law during the Clinton administration. President George W. Bush expanded them through the regulatory process. President Barack Obama revised and reconfirmed them as recently as April 2016, and the Trump administration has reaffirmed these principles through an executive order and an attorney general’s memorandum. The federal rules also apply to federal funds used by state and local governments, which are often where the payments are made to private organizations to provide services.
Surprisingly, these equal treatment rules have drawn broad political and legal support. But in government, as in the private sector, even the best rules do not implement themselves. Government officials must be trained and fully literate in the proper implementation of these rules, ensuring that faith-based organizations truly are welcome to compete on an equal basis as secular organizations. In our work with with a capacity-building learning community of faith-based organizations called Sacred Sector, several Washington, DC-area faith-based organizations have noted that they were given inaccurate information from government officials regarding their ability to compete for grants and contracts while maintaining their faith-based identity and religious staffing practices.
In fact, the Bush administration created the special new faith-based offices precisely to combat such barriers to partnerships. Subsequently, President Obama kept these offices but renamed them: the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships are located inside the major federal departments that provide funding for private service organizations. Unfortunately, however, President Trump has not reopened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships–at least, not yet. However, the departmental Centers are open and operating (except for the one in the Small Business Administration). Some have new leadership, and some continue to be staffed with civil servants who were involved in them during the previous administration.
With or without a big news splash, and whether or not they have new leadership, these department Centers, in fact, have a distinct and designated amount of authority, thanks to the executive orders that created them and thanks to their placement near the leadership of their respective departments. These Centers have authority because one of their key tasks is to ensure implementation of the equal treatment rules that are embedded in the regulations of their respective departments.
Good functioning of the Centers is critical for the advancement of religious freedom and the protections of civil society organizations. The key tasks of these Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships are to:
- make sure the equal treatment regulations are followed by federal, state, and local officials;
- educate nonprofit organizations about these liberating rules and act as an ombudsman if the organizations encounter opposition from government officials;
- help in the redesign of government programs to support, not replace, civil society solutions; and
- focus on local solutions that work, and help those local organizations become more sustainable and effective.
Government money is not suitable for every private provider of service, and certainly not for every faith-based organization. But it is suitable for many, helping them expand their services and ensuring that those the government seeks to help get the best help available. Religious and secular nonprofits that do not seek federal funding may well decide that their service missions can best be fulfilled if they enter into one or another kind of nonfinancial collaboration with a federal or other government program. The federal Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships build bridges between government and civil society. News stories or not, faith-based organizations should not neglect these essential bridge-builders.
Here are links to the Centers:
Note: The SBA Center is dormant.