Government Support of Faith-Based Social Services: A Look at Three Potential Pitfalls
Forren, John P., Journal of Markets & Morality
President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, introduced with great fanfare in early 2001, may seem at first glance to represent little more than a clever rebranding of various church-state partnerships that have been mainstays on the federal domestic policy landscape for years. After all, religiously affiliated organizations such as Catholic Charities USA, Lutheran Social Services, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services have been receiving significant federal support of their charitable works since at least the early 1900s. (1) Church-linked hospitals and nursing homes likewise have been participating in federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid for generations. At the local level, churches and other religious bodies have long since become the primary providers in many communities of publicly funded counseling, job training, disaster relief, and family support services. At the same time, members of the clergy now have long track records of service as mentors, counselors, spiritual leaders, and role models within the nation's military and in its prisons.
Clearly, then, the basic idea of using people of faith as vehicles in the delivery of public services is hardly an innovation of the current Administration. Still, to characterize the Bush faith-based initiative as simply "more of the same" would be to downplay just how much the nature of the church-state partnership in social services has changed over the past half-decade. Under the guidance of a new White House-based Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, agencies throughout the federal government now operate under affirmative presidential mandates to open up more public funding opportunities and to expand the technical assistance, training, and regulatory relief afforded to religious groups. Specially designated offices in eleven of the fifteen Cabinet-level federal departments have been opened since 2001 to coordinate outreach activities and manage information about participation by faith-based organizations in federally funded grants and contracts. (2) On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, administration officials have lobbied extensively to eliminate stat-utory barriers to public funding and expand the pool of available resources. At the same time, the Bush Administration has forged a broad range of new partnerships on faith-based policymaking with states and local governments as well.
The results? According to White House estimates, religious entities received over $2.15 billion in federal grants in fiscal year 2005 alone--altogether, 10.9 percent of the total federal grant monies for which faith-based groups were eligible to apply that year. Within some departments, the percentage reached much higher; in Housing and Urban Development, for instance, religious charities received $520.9 million--or 24 percent of all discretionary funds awarded competitively by that agency last year. (3) At the same time, the overall number of federal grants awarded to faith-based organizations increased significantly--up 38 percent between 2003 and 2005, (4) and state-level offices tasked specifically with the enhancement of social service participation by religious charities rose in number to twenty-five. (5)
As advocates of closer church-state linkages see it, such developments provide clear evidence of Bush Administration success in removing outmoded legal and regulatory barriers to participation and in enhancing the quality of public services for the poor and needy. (6) Yet, in the eyes of critics, the current Administration's efforts have created a host of new threats to core American principles of church-state separation and to the constitutionally sanctioned freedom of religion. Among these concerns, three seem especially worrisome. For one, critics argue that clients of social service groups, long protected by legal and regulatory restrictions on faith-based groups, are now exposed to unwanted proselytization and pressure at the hands of activists operating at taxpayer expense. …