Fair Faith-Based Partnerships
JUST LAW AND RELIGION
By Michael Kessler
It was refreshing to hear Joshua DuBois repeat the words "responsible partnerships" in describing President Obama's vision for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
DuBois, the talented Executive Director of the Office, was one of the featured speakers at an event sponsored by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The event took stock of the past and future of the Office, which will build upon some of the good work accomplished in the Bush years, but reorient the Office in new directions.
DuBois' multiple references to "responsible partnerships" signaled how the new administration is seeking ways to be more attentive to some of the lurking constitutional difficulties that might stymie partnerships between government and faith organizations. While resolving issues like the "religious hiring" question will take some time, (this question will now be determined by the Justice Department and White House Counsel), the Director and the President have publicly committed to "strengthen" the legal and Constitutional basis of the Office's work.
Some of the legal challenges plaguing the Bush office did not arise from bad-faith efforts to proselytize or funnel money to sectarian groups. Rather, it came from good-faith efforts to help people as directly as possible by giving money to those working at the most local level. The tangle of government and religious groups gave rise to some unintended problems.
At the event, Professor Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard, the well-regarded former mayor of Indianapolis, outlined his own efforts in the 1990s to build partnerships between faith organizations and the city to provide services to the most needy. The programs "leveraged" the "social capital" of churches, synagogues and mosques working alongside other community groups who collaborated to revitalize urban neighborhoods. As Goldsmith described their efforts, their central concerns were not those of the beltway insider. Instead of fretting about the religious hiring issue, the mayors and faith organizations focused entirely on providing resources and services to alleviate the immediate needs of the homeless, poor, and hungry people in the local community.
But these local partnerships became nationalized. Part of the welfare reform effort signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 included a "charitable choice" provision that allowed formal grants for community development and welfare services to be paid directly to faith organizations. President Bush built on this legacy to formalize the Office, whose mission was largely focused on assisting faith-based organizations to apply for government grant money to support social service delivery programs.
An important note: the Office does not administer any grants. The grants are administered by many agencies, like HUD and USAID. The Office assists faith organizations in order to "level the playing field" and help small community groups navigate the thicket of red tape to access money that might be funneled to local programs.
Under the leadership of President Obama and DuBois, the Office is expanding its mission to become involved in gathering diverse opinions and making recommendations about some significant policy issues. Rather than focusing solely on grant-making, the Office is also aiming to build civic partnerships and connect government agencies with local community groups in the policy-making process. The Office also will help to make local community services more efficient, by building networks between local providers and distributing information about best practices that may minimize waste.
The usual concerns about the faith-based grants are the dangers that religious groups may proselytize while delivering social services. To be a "responsible" partner with government means that the faith-based organization creates a separate, non-profit corporation which receives the Federal grant and delivers the secular service, apart from the religious activities of the organization. There are many safeguards in place to achieve this goal, with perhaps some room for improvement.
One big question arises on the other side of the partnership. In promoting the grant-process to faith-based groups, the Office, DuBois, and the President himself have a responsibility to ensure that all faith-based organizations are treated equally. No favoritism should be shown to specific kinds of sectarian groups.
This favoritism was the focus of a taxpayer challenge during the Bush administration. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the government, alleging that representatives of the Office violated the Establishment Clause by organizing conferences designed to promote religious community groups over secular ones in the grant-procurement process. They sought to enjoin the Office from targeting religious groups and providing special assistance in a manner that was not provided to secular community groups. Inflaming this concern was the practice of targeting evangelical religious organizations, in particular. The challenge was not against the grants themselves, but about the conferences the President hosted for religious groups to help them apply for the grants.
In Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007), Justice Alito quickly dispatched the possibility of bringing an Establishment clause challenge to these conferences. The conferences were created by the Executive and paid for by unspecified, discretionary appropriations. How these discretionary funds are spent is a policy determination for which the Court defers to the judgment of the President and his agents. On Alito's rendering, a taxpayer challenge based on the Establishment clause has historically been possible only if it is toward a Congressionally-mandated disbursement, based on the Constitution's Art. I §8 powers, and carried out by the Executive under strict adherence to the congressional mandate. In this case, using the general office budget to help particular kinds of religious organizations better their grant applications was not open to taxpayer challenge claiming an Establishment clause violation.
As such, without taxpayers being able to legally stand guard over potential abuses of discretionary funds, the President may abuse this spending and favor some religious groups over others.
This is precisely why DuBois' multiple references to "responsible partnerships" should reassure those who think Hein might have been wrongly decided. Responsibility cuts both ways, and a President who is deeply concerned about defending the Constitution would do well to ensure the Office does not abuse the discretion it enjoys in this realm.
With the big challenges we are facing in education, housing, health care, global unrest, and economic decline, every partnership will be crucial. Providing efficient delivery of vital services through local channels--especially faith-based and community groups who are trusted in communities--can ensure resources are distributed in a timely and efficient manner. These partnerships can help our nation recover and build a brighter, more stable future.
The legitimacy of these partnerships will depend on ensuring the funds are spent on non-sectarian services. As well, their legitimacy will depend on the President and the Office truly leveling access to the grants, so that every religious group can access funds equally, and no particular kind of religious organization is shown preferential treatment.
Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.
Posted by: mono1 | June 14, 2009 8:51 AM
Report Offensive Comment
Posted by: Frank57 | June 14, 2009 8:46 AM
Report Offensive Comment
Posted by: Frank57 | June 14, 2009 8:44 AM
Report Offensive Comment
Posted by: ccnl1 | June 12, 2009 3:29 PM
Report Offensive Comment
The comments to this entry are closed.