Faith-Based Initiatives in the Land of Religious Liberty

American taxpayer money used to help religious non-profit organizations.

Since 2004 the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s Growth Fund has received more than $3 million to train New York City non-profit organizations in developing their boards of directors, reinstating financial systems, and building websites. That $3 million, which funds a Jewish organization promoting Jewish values, comes from a startling place: United States taxpayers.

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was one beneficiary of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2010, the council’s current grant cycle will end, but leaders in the organization are hopeful that funding will continue under President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Balancing Religion and Government

Any government entity with the word “faith” may seem at odds with one of the United States’ most central tenets: the separation of church and state. But some Jewish groups are hopeful that President Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, will find a balance in harnessing the power of religious groups while upholding the country’s fundamental ideology.

Church and State

Obama’s newly established Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is intended to be a resource for both secular and faith-based organizations, helping them make a bigger impact on their communities. The goal is that the office will help organizations to learn their legal obligations, cut through bureaucracy, and maximize federal government money and resources.

History of Faith-Based Initiatives

The concept of government-funded religious group initiatives originated under President Clinton. In 1996 Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Its “Charitable Choice” provisions prohibited states from discriminating against religious organizations when choosing providers to deliver federal grant programs, and enabled religious organizations to provide federally-funded social services.

When President Bush came into office in 2000, he made faith-based initiatives a key priority of his administration. More than $2.3 billion of taxpayer money funded various social service programs provided by religious groups. However, few Jewish organizations received money, according to United Jewish Communities.

Though some organizations keep strict boundaries between their religious and government-funded activities, legal dilemmas regarding proselytizing and discrimination in hiring are nearly inevitable. In 2006 Americans United for Separation of Church and State won a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Iowa Corrections Department’s support for an evangelical prison program called InnerChange. The judge found that government funds were being used to proselytize to inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed the constitutionality of “Charitable Choice” or faith-based initiatives.

For some people, faith-based funding, in general, signifies a violation of one of our nation’s most fundamental laws and political philosophies: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which upholds separation of church and state.

Deborah Lauter, civil rights director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), believes that faith-based initiatives chip away at religious freedom, undermining that core democratic principle. Jews have succeeded in the U.S., in large part, due to of church-state separation, she said.

In 2002 President Bush signed an executive order that enabled faith-based organizations receiving government funds to consider religion in hiring processes. On the campaign trail, President Obama spoke in opposition of this policy. While he has not rescinded the order, he has announced that each situation would be legally reviewed on a case by case basis.

Glen S. Lewy, the ADL’s National Chair and Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL’s National Director, wrote a letter to President Obama voicing their disappointment in the new president’s failure to rescind Bush’s controversial order. “Especially in the context of your vision of an expanded, better-funded faith-based initiative, we are deeply troubled by the prospect that taxpayer money will likely fund religious discrimination in employment decisions involving the people who deliver faith-based social services,” they wrote.

New Attitudes

Obama approaches religious “partnerships” with a seemingly new attitude. There is a perception among Jewish leaders that Bush viewed separation of church and state as an annoyance. Obama, on the other hand, has clearly made religious liberty central to his office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, according to Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Members of the new office’s 25-person advisory council include both religious and secular leaders, such as Rabbi David Saperstein–the executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the CEO of Big Brothers / Big Sisters of America, and an African Methodist bishop.

Though controversies will undoubtedly arise from any federal faith initiatives, Obama says his Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will assist in nation-building from the grassroots. “The change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone,” President Obama said .
“There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals, and any place an American decides.”

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