A White House advisory panel today proposed ways to strengthen rules to ensure that religious charities only use government money only for secular purposes. The panel, however, was divided over whether houses of worship should be required to set up separate organizations to receive the funds.
The President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships tackled those questions in a 164-page report that also recommended dozens of ways the federal government could work better with social-services charities to fight domestic and global poverty, improve the environment, and promote good fatherhood.
The government should view such groups as more than just “providers of essential services,” and include them as “partners at the table” when it makes decisions about helping people in need, the council’s chairwoman—Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School—said in presenting the report to the White House.
The report includes many proposals that could apply to any charity, whether religious or secular. For example, it suggests that the federal government insist that state governments that receive economic-stimulus money pay their subcontractors, including nonprofit groups, promptly. It also proposes making it easier for small organizations to qualify as a charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.
Notices for Beneficiaries
The report also dealt with more controversial issues that have dogged the federal government’s efforts to work with religious organizations since President Bush set up a White House office to ease red tape for “faith-based” groups applying for federal money.
President Obama created a similar office, although he promised to strengthen rules barring proselytizing and to prohibit charities receiving government social-services grants and contracts from hiring discrimination based on religion.
The advisory panel did not deal with the hiring question at the request of the White House, which has referred the matter to the Justice Department—an approach that has drawn criticism from civil-liberties and left-leaning religious groups.
However, the council—made up of 25 mostly religious leaders—proposed that the government clarify how the constitutional separation of church and state applies to charities that receive government grants and contracts. For example, it should tweak language that now bans such groups from using direct government aid for religious activities, require religious charities to notify beneficiaries in writing that they do not have to attend religious activities, ensure that peer reviewers of grant proposals are never asked about their religious affiliation, and strengthen monitoring of church-state issues.
While most of the council’s recommendations were adopted by consensus, only a slim majority (13 members) agreed that houses of worship that apply for government money should be required to set up 501(c)(3) charities to better ensure church-state separation and make it easier for the government to monitor the money without fear of intruding into “church autonomy.” The remaining 12 members argued that route can be cumbersome and should not be imposed as a “one-size-fits-all solution.”
Sayings and Symbols
Panel members also split over whether charities should be allowed to offer government-subsidized services in rooms that contain religious messages or symbols. Most agreed the government should not take a stand one way or the other, while ensuring that any beneficiaries who object to such objects have access to an alternative provider. But nine of the members argued either that charities should be allowed to use such space only as a last resort or should be banned from using it altogether.
Existing rules prohibit charities from using direct government aid for “inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization.” However, the council proposed that wording be changed to bar “explicitly” religious activities.
Robert W. Tuttle, co-director of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy’s legal tracking program, praised the proposed change because he says the existing language is too vague. He cited a case involving Silver Ring Thing, a group that received federal money for an evangelical abstinence program during the Bush administration—and prompted a successful lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Because abstinence programs can also be offered on a secular basis, some people were confused about whether to label abstinence programs that use religious language to achieve similar goals as "inherently religious," he said.
The advisory council also recommended that the federal government:
• Steer more money to fatherhood programs and organize quarterly roundtables on the subject with groups including foundations, corporations, and charities.
• Get nonprofit organizations more involved in developing domestic and international climate-change strategies.
• Work with interfaith groups to solve both domestic and international problems.
• Work with nonprofit groups to create an alternative to the proposed Partner Vetting System, which would require charities that apply for government money to submit the names of “key individuals,” including employees and trustees, to be screened against terrorist watch lists.