2016-07-27
Adapted with permission from Christian Century In 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."

A few interviewees from the faith community, though, voiced uncertainty as to "how far they could go"in integrating spiritual ministry into their social service programs. This lack of clarity arises from Charitable Choice's own guidelines. On the one hand, language at the beginning of the Charitable Choice provision makes it clear that the rules are intended to protect the religious character and autonomy of the organizations receiving governmental funds. On the other hand, the end of the section includes wording prohibiting religious groups from using government contract funds for purposes of "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." This creates a balance beam for FBOs to walk on.

Obviously, there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes "sectarian instruction." I would argue that Charitable Choice's back end ought to be interpreted via its front end. That is, if a Jewish FBO runs an hour-long, publicly funded computer skills training class that includes a one minute prayer by the instructor at the beginning of the class, that FBO is not engaging in "sectarian instruction;" it is simply being true to its character as a religious organization. If "sectarian instruction" is defined so broadly as to include that one-minute prayer, then Charitable Choice's alleged protection of the religious identity and character of FBOs is a sham.

In an attempt to give religious groups some guidance in navigating between Charitable Choice's front and back ends, some religious organizations have begun work on a "Code of Conduct" by which FBOs accepting government funds regulated by Charitable Choice would pledge to operate. This approach displays the faith community's desire to be above reproach in its dealing with government.

When government and churches (or FBOs) engage in a direct financial contract, smooth navigation between Charitable Choice's front and back ends seems best achieved when the FBO remains true to its religious character--offering clients what it regards as a holistic ministry--yet agrees to compartmentalize its programming. For example, an FBO may offer a job training program for TANF recipients that involves biblically based classes on life skills led by clergy, a computer training class taught by a church volunteer, and job placement assistance by the FBO's staff.

The FBO can make it clear to government and to potential participants that its program contains these three elements and competes for a contract to underwrite the computer class and the job placement work. Clients' participation in the life skills class--funded separately--is encouraged but not mandatory. The computer teacher is free to offer a short prayer at the beginning of class, but ought not spend half the time on a study of the Torah when the students should be learning Microsoft Excel. The jobs placement counselor might invite clients to a church-sponsored jobs fair or let them know about a new "single moms support group" forming in the parish, but shouldn't promise that "just surrendering their lives to Jesus" will land them good jobs.

If the potential benefits of Charitable Choice are to be fully realized, government entities, religious organizations and nonprofits must each do their part in precisely implementing the legislation. Government leaders must educate employees about the specifics of the Charitable Choice guidelines.

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