Karen Frantz, the policy and advocacy associate at the American Humanist Association, weighs in on Barack Obama‘s plan to both expand and reign in George W. Bush‘s Faith Based Initiatives.
First, what will Obama’s plan include?
- They were required to set up a separate 501(c)3 organization to receive federal funds. This prevented federal money from being funneled directly to houses of worship, where oversight of how those dollars were being spent (i.e. for secular vs. religious purposes) would have been a tricky task.
- The separate 501(c)3 groups were required to provide services that were secular in nature. This means groups couldn’t use federal money to engage in sectarian religious activities, such as proselytizing.
- The social services administered by faith-based groups and funded by government money were required to be available indiscriminate of religion. In other words, an evangelical group couldn’t make its services available only to other evangelicals. Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others — religious and non-religious — also had to have access.
- Faith-based groups couldn’t discriminate on the basis of religion in their employment decisions for positions that were funded with federal money. (Note the caveat: “with federal funds.” Religious groups only had to adhere to the above regulations if they were spending government money. Where they used their own private funds they were exempt from these rules.)
Make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea — so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, 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.
Not everything is perfect, of course:
However, there are some pitfalls. Not so clear under Obama’s proposal is the question of whether federal funds would be permitted to go directly to houses of worship rather than a separate 501(c)3, thus making meaningful oversight a valid concern. Hopefully this isn’t Obama’s intent. As someone who has worked extensively with faith-based groups in the past, he should know that direct funding is not only bad for separation of church and state but also for religious liberty, threatening the integrity of houses of worship by tying their activities to the activities of the government — activities that more religious voices are speaking out against all the time.
While that is the gist of the piece, the entire article is certainly worth reading.