Should We Put Our Faith in Faith-Based Organizations?

Considering charitable choice in light of the social science research that still remains to be done.

This article has been adapted from the editorial of the 2001 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. The Yearbook is the most widely recognized and reliable source for information on churches in the U.S., Canada. Its Editor is the Reverend Eileen W. Lindner, Ph.D.

In 1996 the primary legislative basis for federal assistance to the poor was appreciably amended with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. Within this new and complex law section 104 was established which has become known as the "Charitable Choice" provision. At its heart this provision requires states to permit faith-based organizations (FBOs) to be eligible, along with other nonprofit organizations, in providing contracted social services. Moreover, the section forbids the states from requiring such a faith-based organization to "alter its form of internal governance or remove religious arts, icons, scripture or other symbols" as a condition for serving as a contracted provider of social services.

The political climate which nurtured the development of this Charitable Choice provision; the experiences of FBOs which have provided services under this provision; and, the initial research that has been undertaken to analyze various aspects of the consequences of this provision, together are the focus of this essay. The Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches seeks annually to identify trends, directions and degree of changes observable within the American religious landscape. The vigor of our present national debate over the appropriateness and potential for a public-private partnership in service provision qualifies as a major trend which emerged from the political arena to have as yet undetermined impact upon religion in America.

A Peculiar Lineage


The political will to formulate and enact the Charitable Choice provision of the welfare reform law came from a somewhat unexpected quarter. The Charitable Choice section of the Welfare Reform Legislation was sponsored by then Senator John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri. Moreover prominent conservative organizations including the Christian Coalition and The Family Research Council actively supported its passage.

Some researchers including Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona have suggested that this support was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to see broader church involvement in meeting the needs of the poor as well as an interest in redirecting public resources to religious organizations.

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Reverend Eileen W. Lindner, Ph.D
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