Running on Faith (Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives)

In the latter part of January 2001 the phrase “faith-based” seemed to be on everyone’s lips. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) had just been unveiled, and another executive order established centers within five cabinet departments – Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development – to encourage participation by faith-based and other smaller community groups. George W. Bush seemed to be making good on his promise to put faith-based social service groups at the heart of his “compassionate conservatism” approach.

We’re not hearing so much about it today. Like the rest of the Bush domestic agenda, the faith-based initiative has taken a back seat to the president’s “war on terrorism.” But even before September 11 changed national priorities, the OFBCI was off to a rocky and uncertain start.

In its report Can an Office Change a Country?, released this February, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reviewed OFBCI’s first year and called the office “understaffed, underfunded, and without a clear grasp of their responsibilities.” The report went on to explain that the office was hindered by lack of autonomy, and said its consensus-building approach was ignored by others in the administration who plowed ahead with their own legislative goals. The appointment of John Dilulio, a Democrat, to head the office drew fire from some Republicans.

The legislative priority of the office, or at least of the Bush administration, was “charitable choice” (see Shelterforce #115). Charitable choice, which had its little-noticed debut in the 1996 welfare reforms, allows religious congregations to receive federal funding without establishing a separate 501(c)3 organization, thereby reducing restrictions on the religious qualities of their work, though it doesn’t allow federal funds to be used for proselytizing.

Charitable choice emerged from the belief that religious organizations have been fighting poverty a lot longer than secular groups, and that religion has healing and transforming powers that can make it a more effective (and cheaper) player in the fight against poverty. But there is little hard data to either confirm or dispute this hypothesis. Human service providers and those involved in community development activities know well the work of Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army, and perhaps have one or more shining examples of an individual or a faith-based CDC operating in their own communities. The jury of academics that make a living sifting through such data, however, lean toward the conclusion that faith-based organizations are, at best, no better at lifting people out of poverty than secular nonprofits.

The Community Solutions Act of 2001 (HR 7) was the first legislative attempt to make charitable choice applicable for all federal funding. During the summer of 2001, it faced strong opposition from a broad coalition. Along with those concerned about breaking the separation of church and state, conservative religious groups feared the interference of government, and senators and civil rights groups attacked the bill for allowing faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring based on religious grounds: for example, a Baptist organization could limit hiring to Baptists. An internal Salvation Army memo claiming the administration had promised to protect religious groups from local gay rights statutes didn’t help. HR 7 passed, but the Pew report surmises that getting it passed expended most of the energy and political capital of the OFBCI. And it was never taken up by the Senate.

Dilulio resigned from OFBCI in August, citing health and family reasons. When the terrorists struck the following month, it seemed all but certain that the initiative would be relegated to a footnote in any assessment of the president’s first year in office.

Despite these setbacks, the office has not been totally inactive. According to the Pew report, the most important success of the OFBCI may very well be the five cabinet-based centers, dedicated to implementing the four existing charitable choice provisions and identifying obstacles (both regulatory and perceptual) to faith-based organizations participating in federal funding. Each cabinet has done an internal audit, the results of which were released in the report Unlevel Playing Field in August. The obstacles identified include cumbersome regulations, anti-competitive mandates, and restrictions of religious activities beyond the required separation of church and state.

The individual centers have varied in their activity. The Department of Labor’s center has a single paragraph on the DOL’s website, plus a recent preliminary study about the range of employment services offered by faith-based groups. HUD and HHS seem more active. HHS’s website provides a variety of resources for faith-based groups wanting to understand the grant process. And in March, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez announced an “open door policy” toward faith-based organizations interested in providing social services to public housing residents, saying he wanted to remove misconceptions that faith-based groups weren’t welcome. Martinez also took a position on some of the thorny issues from the charitable choice debate, declaring it improper for Sioux Falls, South Dakota to ask federal grantee St. Francis House to replace prayer with a moment of silence at its meals for homeless people.

The OFBCI itself is slowly getting back on track: in February, Bush appointed James Towey director of the office. Towey was legal counsel to Mother Teresa of Calcutta for 12 years and founded Aging with Dignity in 1996 to advocate on behalf of the elderly; he also served as director of Florida’s health and social services agency, and as legislative director for former Republican senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

Last but not least, an improved charitable choice law has emerged from the almost unanimous opposition to HR 7. Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have introduced the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act (CARE ), the product of negotiations between the White House, Republican and Democratic senators, and a host of organizations opposed to the charitable choice provisions of the House bill. The act streamlines the process for granting nonprofit status to satellite 501(c)3s; adds a range of new tax-breaks designed to support charitable contributions and encourage Individual Development Accounts; and provides technical assistance to faith-based organizations to help them set up 501(c)3 organizations, apply for government grants, and manage government funds. The CARE Act allows faith-based federal grantees to retain much of their religious identity, leaving many of the gray areas around separation of church and state unresolved, but it does require religious organizations to abide by all civil rights laws, a distinct improvement over HR 7.

There are still concerns, especially with the tax-break provisions of the bill. Without a massive public education effort to encourage non-itemizing taxpayers to increase donations, Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says giving non-itemizers a charitable donations break will likely just result in handing out additional tax deductions for the current level of giving. Cohen is also skeptical of the proposal to end a two-tier tax system that had been an incentive for foundations to spend more than 5 percent of their funds each year. “[The incentive] hasn’t really worked,” Cohen admits, but still, he doesn’t see how eliminating it – effectively lowering the taxes on those who hadn’t reached the goal – will encourage foundations to give more.

Giving more – especially by those who supposedly know how to do it better than anyone else – is what Bush says this approach to fighting poverty is all about. But if the armies of compassion, secular and faith-based alike, are going to do more, they will need more resources (not just tax breaks that reduce revenue elsewhere), or the newly open door will only increase competition for federal funds. For the faith-based effort to truly succeed, it can’t be sent out to battle on its own; it must be part of a government commitment to ending poverty – something no sector, and no faith can handle alone.

Warren Craig and Miriam Axel-Lute provided research for this article.

Resource: Can an Office Change a Country? The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, A Year in Review, by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. February 2002. http://pewforum.org/.

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