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Observation: Common Ground on the Church-State Divide January 2009

Common Ground on the Church-State Divide

By David Wright
Director, Urban and Metropolitan Studies

David Wright

The message of change has been front and center throughout President Barack Obama’s campaign, inauguration, and first days in office. From closing Guantanamo to permitting state regulation of auto emissions, sharp breaks from the past have been in abundant supply. But one signature effort of George W. Bush may live on in fair measure under the Obama Administration. That’s the initiative to expand the use of churches and faith-based organizations in addressing poverty and other social problems.

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David Wright is director of Urban and Metropolitan Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and was Project Director of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a special project of the Institute and George Washington University School of Law that examined the role, legality, and effectiveness of government partnerships with religious organizations in delivering public services.

Then-Senator Obama surprised many last April, when he voiced support for continuing as President the White House Office set up by Bush to expand government social service partnerships with religious organizations. The sense of surprise was understandable: the heat of a presidential campaign is an unusual setting for a candidate to laud a high-profile effort associated closely with the opposing party’s incumbent, not to mention deeply unpopular, leader. And few topics have been more durably controversial over our nation’s history than those involving intersections of church and state.

But there is also a history of bipartisan support for government service efforts with religious groups. Although the memory feels remote—it was the equivalent of a political generation ago—George W. Bush and Al Gore agreed during the 2000 presidential campaign that such partnerships could play a more valuable role in programs that address addiction, poverty, domestic violence, the spread of AIDS and other issues. That choral beginning soon became disharmonious, however.

President Bush followed his electoral victory with a legislative push on faith. But when those avenues were blocked by determined opposition in the U.S. Senate, he used executive orders to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and centers in 12 federal agencies to advance government partnerships with religious and secular nonprofits. The legacy of this effort, to its architects and admirers, includes: 16 federal rules rewritten to help faith-based organizations provide government services on a “level playing field” with secular groups and without diminishing their religious character; training and assistance provided to more than 100,000 religious and secular grassroots organizations, through regional conferences around the country; 35 states and more than 100 cities encouraged to create faith-based offices or designate liaisons to religious communities; about $300 million in government money set aside to help small faith-based and community organizations apply for grants and build their organizational capacity; and the use of vouchers advanced so government money could flow to even the most intensely religious organizations without violating constitutional laws separating church and state.

Yet the office has not functioned without controversy, and questions remain about its operation. "I think it fell short of its promise,” said Jim Wallis, president of the Christian advocacy group Sojourners and an early supporter of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiative, toward the end of President Bush’s term. “No. 1, things weren't funded very well. No. 2, it became a substitute for good social policy instead of an addition. And No. 3, it became very partisan, very political." Corroborating observations were offered by no less a source than former staff responsible for heading up the Initiative.

Obama’s Plan: Religious Inclusion, No Hiring Discrimination

Obama’s approach appears to have taken these criticisms to heart. "I still believe it's a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular," he said July 1, 2008 at a community ministry in Zanesville, Ohio. "But it has to be a real partnership—not a photo-op. That's what it will be when I'm President."

The plan Obama outlined in his campaign calls for a Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships which, like the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, would invite religious as well as secular nonprofits to compete for government service grants or contracts, and would provide training on how to partner successfully with the government. Obama’s effort vows to differ from the Bush approach by training larger faith-based and community groups to work with smaller religious groups, and to work more closely with state and local governments to encourage their efforts and move the initiative out of Washington—but both were also significant elements in the Bush Administration’s program. A study by the Rockefeller Institute’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy found that more than half the states have enacted laws that identify faith-based organizations as potential participants in social service programs. And many states had special efforts underway to help religious organizations deal with the complexities of competing for grants and contracts.

As a distinctive focal point, Obama’s proposal calls for $500 million in funding for a summer learning program for about 1 million American children who are far behind their peers. "This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart—it will be a critical part of my administration," Obama said in July.

But the pivotal difference in the Obama and Bush approaches to partnerships with religious groups is their stance on whether religious organizations retain the right they have under the Civil Rights Act to base employment decisions on a person's faith when hiring for positions funded with taxpayers' money. This divisive question has been at the heart of a heated debate over the Bush Administration’s Initiative since its inception. Proponents of religious hiring rights—Bush among them—argue that allowing such preferences in hiring is essential to maintaining their religious identity, and part of what makes their approach to providing services distinctive. Opponents counter that religious groups should not be allowed to discriminate against people of different faiths when they are funded with public dollars, and that candidates for publicly funded positions ought not be barred because of their personal religious beliefs.

Obama, in setting out his proposal, did not equivocate. In his remarks and campaign fact sheet from July 2008, Obama said he would not support the right of faith-based groups who receive public funding to "discriminate against ... the people you hire on the basis of their religion."

Less clear are the policies he inherits. Congress included provisions in the 1996 welfare reform law regarding the hiring rights of religious organizations receiving money for programs funded through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Subsequent laws also included the provisions for some other specific services. Beginning in 2001, President Bush, unable to convince Congress to extend the provisions to more government programs, issued executive orders to do so. Those orders, however, did not override statutes governing particular funding streams—such as the Workforce Investment Act and Head Start early education—that expressly prohibited religious groups from making such hiring preferences. Efforts by the Bush Administration to modify that language were repeatedly blocked by Congress. In October 2008, the Bush Administration released a 2007 Justice Department memorandum, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which may facilitate the granting of waivers to religious groups who want to retain their religious hiring rights even in those programs in which Congress has prohibited them.

Whether this Justice Department ruling is rescinded or reversed may be one of the first questions the Obama Administration takes up in this area. But the political and policy waters of religious hiring rights are treacherous to navigate, as reaction has already shown, and there are stronger, deeper crosscurrents, too.

Religious Groups: Special, or Merely “More Hands”?

Obama’s Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships appears intended to chart a tight course: to demonstrate an ability to reach and include members of the religious community, hopeful of an agenda of social justice and meeting the needs of the poor, while not alienating elements of the traditional civil rights community committed to church-state separation. But to those with a hand on the tiller, it may feel more like they have been threading between Scylla and Charybdis. For strict separationists, the result is an opportunity lost to end an irreparable program, while many on the religious left are left hoping for evolution on the matter of hiring rights, and wondering if their purposes and work were well-understood.

President Obama has emphasized that he seeks an important place at the table for religious groups in providing social welfare programs. "As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques," Obama said in his July remarks. "That's why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck."

This is fine and well, and one can hear the “amen’s.” But these words may contain a cautionary note, too. The view that religious social service organizations are simply ‘more hands’ differs considerably from how many groups active in the community see their work, and the distinction ties directly back to the matter of hiring rights. If the premise is that religious groups providing social services are ‘more hands,’ and not doing something differently, then it is easier to conclude that those which receive government funds should be held to rules that prohibit religious hiring preferences. If, however, “the premise behind such partnerships is that groups that are intrinsically religious should be able to receive government funds to provide services,” observes Marc D. Stern, assistant executive director and legal counsel for the American Jewish Congress, "then of course, you can permit religious discrimination in hiring." Is there something in the religious character of faith-based social service agencies that connects with why government should want to partner with them, or are they reducible to more hands?

The Obama Administration is likely to find that the debate over hiring rights—so complicated in its own right—is tied up in this way with a more fundamental and as yet unresolved issue: whether and why religion makes a difference in the effectiveness of services provided by faith-based organizations, if and where such differences do exist. Although anecdotes abound, there is scant evidence measuring or distinguishing the ways in which religion may explain differences in organizational performance. For example, it may be that faith-based organizations are effective because they possess a higher probability of having certain traits—such as staff commitment, service range, community ties, and strength of relationships with clients—associated with strong performance but which are not themselves religious. It may be that faith-based organizations resonate in a different way than secular groups with some clients; they may be able to respond more fully and effectively to the needs of individuals for whom religion is already important. Or, it may be that by strengthening religious belief and practices among persons in their care, faith-related programs enhance individuals’ capacities to make fundamental changes in their lives and achieve secular goals of public social service programs. Unpacking these different pathways of influence on organizational performance--the objective of a Rockefeller Institute study now underway on substance abuse treatment programs in Baltimore—will suggest very different avenues for public policy.

Other obstacles present themselves, too. Resistance to government partnerships with religious organizations under the Obama Administration may also come from the faith community, as it did under Bush. Some churches simply don’t want to accept government support, because they see it as a potential source of unwanted control. Others are unaware of or unprepared for public funding. A survey sponsored by the Institute’s Roundtable found that seven in ten churches throughout the country sponsor social services, with those services ranging widely, including everything from marriage counseling to food pantries. But relatively few congregations apply for or receive government funding to support such services. Many, in fact, don’t even know about changes in federal law over the last 10 years that were intended to make it easier for religious organizations to participate in taxpayer-funded services. Among congregations that have sought government funds for social services, more than three-quarters found it hard to apply for and manage grants, according to the Roundtable’s survey.

President Obama’s plans from the campaign indicate that a faith-based and community initiative will live on in some form. And there appears to be direct support from perhaps an even more unusual source for a key component of the Bush Administration’s faith initiative. In its stimulus plan for recovery and reinvestment in the American economy, the House Democratic Leadership has included $100 million for the Compassion Capital Fund, the only pot of new money created in the Bush Administration expressly for making grants to form new partnerships with faith- and community-based organizations serving the needy. It will surely be of great interest to track the new uses made of the CCF and see the shape President Obama’s Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will take in the days and years ahead.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.