After much deliberation, an advisory council has presented the White House with a blueprint for reforming the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, to ensure that the bright line separating the public’s money from support for private religious behavior is visible and honored. The recommendations suggest welcome improvements to a federal operation that too often has been fuzzy on serious constitutional issues. But this good work doesn’t go far enough.
Among the recommendations, the council called for the government to amend its rules to clarify that federal funds cannot be used to pay for explicitly religious activities. That ought to be obvious. But it’s not, and the council — drawn from members of many faiths — was wise to stipulate that social service providers not use direct government aid to pay for religious instruction, for example, or disseminating sacred texts.
The faith-based initiative’s aim is not to prop up religion, but to support those religious institutions that help the poor and needy, especially in communities long abandoned by everyone else.
The council acknowledged it fell short of consensus on two stronger measures: one to require religious grantees to set up separate tax-exempt bodies to administer publicly funded work, another to prevent them from conducting activities in rooms with overt religious symbols. Both seem like reasonable guarantees that public money would be protected, and it’s disappointing a consensus couldn’t be reached.
But a larger issue wasn’t even up for discussion. From the outset, the Obama administration instructed the council not to consider whether religious institutions receiving public funds can be required not to discriminate in hiring. The 1964 Civil Rights Act permits such an institution to hire according to faith, to protect freedom of religion. Once public funding for child-care services or drug rehabilitation is in play, however, the church or synagogue should no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring staff for such programs.
This isn’t a theoretical issue. A prominent refugee resettlement organization that reportedly receives up to 70% of its funds from government sources has just enacted a policy requiring new employees to be Christian. It’s legal. But is it right? And can the faith-based initiative continue to blur constitutional lines and earn our support?