Adapted with permission from Christian CenturyIn 1998 Sue Hill, an administrator with the Department of Human Services in Peoria, Illinois, was trying to help find jobs for several adults whose families were on welfare. Under the new welfare laws, the families would lose their cash benefits (called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF) if the heads of the household didn't find work soon. The department was not able to give these families the time intensive support and attention they needed. So Hill decided to turn to the town's faith community.

Through her "Adopt-A-Family" initiative, Hill matched 25 clients with three churches and two faith-based nonprofit organizations. The goal was to put a web of support around these families, getting the mom into the workforce, and helping her to retain her job for a minimum of three months. "I handpicked the clients and the faith-based groups because I wanted this to be successful," Hill recalls. And it was--all 25 clients found employment and were able to leave the welfare rolls.

Hill's turn to the religious community was in sync with Washington's new attitude about church-state collaboration. In 1996 a "Charitable Choice" section was added to the federal welfare reform law, establishing new rules for collaboration between government and religious institutions. The law prohibits public officials from discriminating against religious social-service providers that seek to compete for government contracts. And it protects the religious integrity and character of faith-based organizations (FBOs) that accept government dollars by granting them the right to retain authority over their mission and governing board; to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities; and to select only staff who agree with their religious beliefs. The Charitable Choice section also seeks to protect the civil liberties of the people receiving services. FBOs must not use governmental funds for purposes of "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization," and they must not discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion or require them to participate in religious practices. In addition, if a client objects to receiving social services from a faith-based provider, under Charitable Choice the government must ensure that the person obtains assistance from another organization.

Discussions of such collaborative efforts typically raise three concerns. First, what kind of religious groups will emerge to compete for funds, and will they all be acceptable? Will we see tax dollars going to strange cults? Second, some critics worry that low-income clients will be bullied by evangelistic groups holding government contracts. Will vulnerable people, already battered by their circumstances, be subjected to manipulation or coercion when they attempt to receive assistance from publicly funded religious organizations? Third, will FBOs that accept funds from government compromise their religious identity? Will public dollars strip the "faith" from faith-based?

These concerns are all legitimate. But thus far, the data suggest that the worst fears are not being realized. Wacky cults have not secured any government social-welfare dollars under Charitable Choice, and are unlikely to. This is because Charitable Choice is not a pot of federal money set aside for religious groups. Charitable Choice is simply a set of new guidelines that make for a level playing field. Prior to 1996, many religious groups were shut out from the competition simply because they were too religious or "sectarian." Now if state or local officials decide to bid for services, they cannot tell FBOs that "they need not apply."

But in order to obtain money, FBOs must win the competition, demonstrating that they can effectively deliver the services they are promising, respect clients' civil liberties, and account for every penny of public money. Contracts are monitored through reports and on-site visits; public officials can interview clients about their experience, fiscal audits occur. Information about these relationships is also publicly available. In short, many safeguards are in place to help prevent incompetent and disreputable groups from securing government welfare dollars.

Fears of aggressive evangelism by publicly funded FBOs also have little basis in fact. Out of the approximate 3,000 clients participating in programs offered by FBOs holding government contracts that I studied, I heard only two complaints. In both cases, the clients felt that they had been subtly pressured to attend the church overseeing the job training program. In both cases, they went to their caseworker with their concerns and received permission to quite the program and join a secular alternative (following Charitable Choice's guidelines).

Religious groups in the nine states I surveyed also registered few complaints about their government partners. The vast majority reported that the church-state question was a "non-issue," that they enjoyed the trust of their government partners and that they had been straightforward about their religious identity. Since clients' participation in their programs was voluntary, these FBOs felt free to "be religious" since clients were free not to participate. As a Baptist pastor in Illinois commented, "Our program is unabashedly religious and nothing in our contracts prevents our identity as a faith-based organization."