Should USAID Use Public Funds For Religious Entities Overseas?

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 18, 2011, issue of May 27, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A seemingly minor proposal buried in the Federal Register is sparking debate over the extent to which separation of religion and state should be maintained beyond American borders.

At issue is an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to ease existing regulations to allow funding for the construction and upkeep of religious institutions overseas.

The agency claims that current restrictions infringe on its ability to carry out its mission, which is to provide American-funded development aid to countries in need. But civil rights activists are crying foul, arguing that the proposed change represents a departure from the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The debate also encompasses the broader issue of defining permitted government activity in an era of increased acceptance of faith-based institutions as legitimate providers of government-funded social services. With the endorsement of government-religious partnerships by both Republican and Democratic administrations to varying degrees, all sides are struggling to shape the new guidelines for federal support for services provided by religious institutions.

Civil rights advocates were quick to notice the proposed amendment to USAID’s funding guidelines posted in the Federal Register on March 25. The amendment suggested a change in the 2004 rules that govern the use of USAID funds for faith-based organizations. These rules, while allowing religious organizations to compete on an equal basis for USAID funding, explicitly prohibit the use of U.S. government funds for the “acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of sanctuaries, chapels,” or any other houses of worship.

Now, USAID, through its Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is arguing that these restrictions go beyond the requirements of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause and “interfere with the ability of USAID to effectively implement the bilateral foreign assistance programs of the United States.”

The agency instead is proposing a five-question test for determining the eligibility of overseas religious institutions to receive funding for construction. These criteria include requirements that such institutions have a secular purpose for their activity and that they be available to all without reference to religion.

An agency spokesman would not provide examples of situations in which USAID is seeking to fund the building of such religious institutions overseas.

Bill Corcoran, president and CEO of ANERA (America Near East Refugee Aid) the largest American charity working in the Middle East to provide aid to Palestinians, said that in his years of working on the issue he has not encountered the need to use government money to fund the building of mosques or other houses of worship. “That would be new for me,” he said. While some work has been done in the past to repair schools or hospitals run by religious groups, Corcoran said, no funding has been provided for structures defined as places of worship.

Critics of the proposed change argue that it represents more than a mere adjustment of regulations. In a May 9 letter to USAID, a group of scholars called for the withdrawal of the proposed amendment. The change would “bring about a dramatic shift in the federal government’s policies,” the scholars wrote. Among the signatories of the letter are Melissa Rogers, who chaired President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, who was a member of the council. The advisory council put out guidelines for the use of federal money for funding services provided by religious groups.

Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University who also signed the letter, told the Forward that he believes the proposed change would be “a departure from the current U.S. policy” and that it represents a “significant change of course in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause.”

The Anti-Defamation League, in a May 6 letter to USAID, opposed the change, stating, “If the federal Establishment Clause stands for anything, it most certainly stands for the principle that our government does not implement taxes or use tax dollars to build houses of worship, chapels and other religious structures.”

A key question posed by the USAID move is whether there is a distinction between funding religious institutions domestically and using U.S. taxpayer dollars to pay for religious institutions overseas. The language put forward by USAID does not address this issue, which is in dispute among legal scholars.

But the agency has come under scrutiny in the past for using taxpayer dollars to fund religious projects overseas. In 1988, the Washington Jewish Week reported that USAID was funding Orthodox Jewish and Catholic religious institutions overseas. The American Civil Liberties Union took the issue to court and won on both the district and federal appeals court levels.

Herman Schwartz, the lawyer who represented the ACLU at the time, was later asked by the U.S. State Department to help formulate regulations to ensure that all funds sent overseas meet constitutional requirements. Schwartz, who is now a professor of law at American University in Washington, said it was clear then, as it is now, that there is no difference between using federal funds for religious activities in the United States or overseas.

“Citizens do not have to pay taxes to support the establishment of religion whether it is here or abroad,” he said.

Schwartz also questioned the need for a new USAID regulation, given the agency’s stipulation that money would go only to fund the construction of religious buildings that are used for secular services. “If it is not used for religious purposes, then what kind of a house of worship is it?” he asked.

Critics of the proposed regulatory change hope USAID will either amend or abandon its effort.

If funding is ultimately granted under the new rule, civil rights groups could try to challenge it in court. But Tuttle, the George Washington University law professor, warns that the courts would be likely to reject their legal standing to do so. “There is no real threat of ‘we will sue you’ here,” Tuttle said.

Andrew Bailey, a spokesman for USAID, told the Forward, “We take all comments received very seriously and will give them careful consideration before taking any next steps in this process.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.