Statement of Principles
January 31, 2001
by Michael Horowitz
Government Financing of Faith-Based Institutions
We are bound and determined to make a positive difference in the lives of the poorest among us. Our faiths oblige us to do so.
We believe that America's very standing as a nation depends on whether and how we help those Americans now caught in an "underclass" bondage that consigns them to lives of hopelessness, poverty and crime. Given our views, we were greatly heartened by the repeated campaign acknowledgments by President Bush and former Vice President Gore that faith-based organizations are now successfully reaching many of those left behind by the failures of our culture and welfare system.
With our newly inaugurated President and with former Vice President Gore, we believe that income transfers of material resources merely add to the problems of intended beneficiaries when they generate dependency without inner strength, and bread without hope. With them, we believe that love and support informed by religious faith can powerfully ameliorate seemingly intractable poverty. With them, we call for significantly increased public recognition and support of the work of faith-based groups and for the need to end invidious discrimination against such groups in the design and management of federal anti-poverty programs.
With President Bush and former Vice President Gore, we believe that principled and pragmatic reasons require important changes in the relations between government and America's religious communities. As such, we welcome and support President Bush's recent meetings with leaders of religious groups, his plans to introduce new legislation and to revise existing regulations, and the priority attention he has paid to these issues.
Today's national consensus to facilitate and broaden the anti-poverty work of America's faith-based communities, and President Bush's commitment to action and change, make it certain that major reform proposals will soon be debated by Congress and the American people. We support President Bush's agenda for action, and also take this opportunity to insist that any federal program to support faith-based institutions must vigilantly preserve the independence of America's religious institutions.
Such independence, in our view, is critical to:
The continued effectiveness and vitality of today's faith-based programs for the poor; and
First Amendment principles that bar government from secularizing
and controlling religious communities no less than they bar it from
requiring citizens to engage in religious observance.
In this spirit, we propose operating principles on which federal reform proposals should be based:
A White House Office: We applaud President Bush's commitment to establish a White House office charged with protecting, facilitating and expanding the role of faith-based activities for the poor throughout the United States. For too long, principles of church-state separation have been distorted into demands that a secular monopoly can alone address public needs and define our common culture. Such demands must be vigorously rejected, and we look forward to the establishment of a new White House office that will help open the American public square to the efforts and voices of America's religious communities.
Regulatory Discrimination: We deplore government policies that impose more onerous regulatory burdens on religious institutions that offer charitable outreach services than those placed on secular providers of the same services. For too long, many government licensing and inspection practices have promoted an anti-religious bias that seeks to limit the availability of faith-based services. We know of no reason why religious schools or church shelters should receive less favorable treatment from government regulators than is given to other schools or shelters. We believe that all such acts of discrimination should be vigorously rooted out at every level of government.
Government Funding Programs: Special problems arise, and conflict between competing principles may occur, when government provides money to religious institutions. In such cases, the principle that government should treat faith-based and secular groups in non-discriminatory fashion may clash with the corollary imperative that government must take no steps to control or limit the independence of religious institutions.
We believe, however, that the equal treatment/loss of independence dilemma can largely be avoided by carefully distinguishing between tax-based, formula grant programs, and discretionary grant programs as means of providing government financial support to religious institutions. We strongly endorse tax-based and formula grant support, and believe that special conditions must attach to government awards of discretionary grants to religious institutions.
Tax-Based Support: We believe that Tax Code-based reforms are the clearly preferable means of providing needed additional support for faith-based outreach programs, and applaud President Bush for his commitment to such reforms. With them, individuals rather than government officials evaluate and reward the work of faith-based groups. Further, the government's role under such reforms is limited to certifying the eligibility of groups to receive contributions - - a role that governments now play and have long played. For these reasons, tax-based reforms will not alter the present relationship between church and state. We thus strongly endorse the Bush proposals to extend tax deductibility for charitable contributions and to establish a poverty-fighting tax credit, provided that its benefits are restricted to organizations providing direct charitable services.
Formula Grant Support: To the extent that government grants finance faith-based programs, we believe that formula grants are the clearly preferred means of doing so. Under formula grant programs, money and resources are provided on the basis of objective, non-discretionary standards to groups performing defined social services. For example, formula grant programs provide a computer for every given number of students enrolled in a qualified school, or provide funds to purchase security equipment based on the number of residents in low-income housing projects.
Such programs, recently upheld by the Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Helms, are comparable to tax-based support programs in that they limit the governmental function to eligibility certifications and standard audits of objective criteria. As with tax-based programs, formula grant programs do not enhance the discretionary authority of government officials towards religious institutions. Such programs thus simply and appropriately ensure that religious and secular institutions performing the same services are treated similarly.
Discretionary Grant Support: In our view, discretionary grant programs are the least preferred means of providing government support to faith-based institutions. That is because such programs permit government officials to discriminate subtly and unsubtly among and between, and for and against, grant applicants. By definition, discretionary grants greatly enhance the powers of governmental authorities and agents, and they thus pose the risk of an altered American church-state balance of power.
These concerns are enhanced when discretionary grants include overhead contributions that pay for the basic expenses of the sponsoring religious institutions themselves. The dependence of many secular, non-profit grantees on government support and approval, for reasons often related to their very financial survival, provides a clear basis for concern about greatly expanded uses of standard discretionary grants to support faith-based social service programs.
We believe that the freedom thus far enjoyed by a small number of closely monitored faith-based Charitable Choice grantees (under the provision within the 1996 welfare reform legislation) provides a limited basis for predicting Charitable Choice's long-term character. The history of federal grant programs suggests that a Charitable Choice program will be very different from what it is today once it becomes a mature and standardized system under which hundreds of thousands of grants are awarded by largely unmonitored mid-level government officials.
The above concerns should not be misconstrued as opposition to Charitable Choice, which we regard less as a finished product than a work in progress in need of careful modification. Subject to our belief that tax-based and formula grant programs can best facilitate expanded faith-based programs for the poor, we also call on President Bush and Congress to expand Charitable Choice. We do so, however, subject to its clarification and revision in three significant respects:
First: Charitable Choice discretionary program grants to faith-based groups should pay for direct program costs only. Concern with limiting government influence and control over religious organizations requires that overhead or "indirect cost" payments should not be paid to support the operating expenses of the sponsoring faith-based grantees. While government may bear the direct program costs of faith-based outreach programs, it should not pay for any portion of the salaries or expenses of persons or core facilities employed by grant-sponsoring churches or church groups. Only in this way can we be confident that faith-based groups will be able to reject the improper demands of funding agencies, for only in this way will withdrawal of grant monies have little or no impact on the financial well-being of the faith-based groups themselves.
Second: Charitable Choice should be revised and any like program should be drafted to bar unconditionally any government regulation or restriction of religious observance or promotion. Proper regard for the First Amendment and grave concern over the slightest prospect of government-mandated or influenced "secularization of faith" requires that faith-based groups be free to conduct their outreach programs with as much or as little religious content as they and they alone choose. Government officials with the power to award or withhold discretionary grants should be unconditionally barred from directly or indirectly influencing or dictating the form or frequency of prayers offered by or required of participants in faith-based grant programs, and they should never be permitted to exercise any authority over the religious content of such programs.
Third: Charitable Choice should be revised and any like program should be drafted to mandate unconditionally that whenever discretionary grants are given to faith-based organizations, program participants should always have alternative secular programs available for their use. Proper regard for the First Amendment, and for the right of persons not to be forced to participate in government-financed religious activity, does not require the dilution of the religious character of faith-based programs. As Charitable Choice presently provides, although in terms requiring further clarification and strengthening, a more constitutional and proper course is for government to finance secular "beneficiary choice" options for persons eligible for services offered by faith-based groups. Providing this option is the critical means of avoiding both government-mandated religious worship and government influence over its content.
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America is on the verge of taking the grave and significant step of transferring significant shares of taxpayer funds to religious groups. Taken with meticulous care, and with solemn concern that expanding the outreach of church groups must not compromise their inner core, this development can yield hope for those Americans for whom America's promise may now be an unachievable prospect. Taken without such care, both the quality of faith-based services now offered to the poor, and the very health and well being of America's religious groups, could suffer irreparable damage.
America's well being will be at stake in the details of decisions that President Bush, the Congress, and America are making this year. This statement is offered as our solemn contribution to that coming, historic debate.
Michael Horowitz was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute until 2012.
Marvin Olasky is a senior fellow of the Acton Institute, professor at the University of Texas, and the editor of World magazine.