John Dilulio’s essay on faith-based initiatives interested me – and caused me some surprise. Let me be clear from the start: In this day and age, it is inexcusable for any child to go hungry. I fully support government funding for social services, especially when the health and welfare of children are involved. I am grateful for the hard work being done by faith-based organizations across the country to provide social services to the community, and I am not universally opposed to government funding for faith-based organizations delivering these services. However – and this is the critical point for me – if faith-based organizations receive taxpayer dollars, they should be required to follow the same rules as every other non-profit organizations who receive such funds.
I was honored by President Obama’s invitation for me to be part of the White House task force on reforming the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Our work led to important reforms that have brought the office more in line with constitutional principles. But, it is quite a stretch that reaches beyond my understanding for Dilulio to assert that “that mission was accomplished.”
The administration declined to adopt a recommendation that would have required faith-based organizations to establish a separate 501(c)3 entity to receive federal money so that federal money and a house of worship’s money would not be intermingled. Instead, the administration only encouraged that action. Presently, the Obama administration operates by the Bush administration’s rules, which allow faith-based groups to discriminate in their hiring even when using taxpayer money. This is a direct contradiction to President Obama’s stated opposition to such a policy in his 2008 campaign. We have waited for four years for the Obama administration to reform the hiring rules, while it has only hedged, saying it will review the issue on a case-by-case basis. In his column, Dilulio clearly says that “many secular liberals are peeved” by this policy. I can tell you, as a minister who has been working in coalition with people of faith on this issue for well over a decade, that we are just as peeved as the secular liberals – likely more so.
I understand the desire for a house of worship to hire co-religionists who live according to the teachings of its faith. I myself am the pastor of a Baptist church in Monroe, La., where we reserve the right to do just that. The difference is that we are supported entirely by private funds given to us by people who support our mission. Were we ever to take public funds to support our ministries, it would be with the understanding that the federal money allows us to administer a social service for the common good, not to promote a religious service with a sectarian mission.
In praising the faith-based initiative, Dilulio also points out one of its most concerning flaws – a lack of transparency. Scarce data are available indicating how much money is flowing from the coffers of our federal government to faith-based organizations or to which ones. This lack of transparency allows for little oversight and masks a critical threat to the boundaries between religion and government.
I believe there is a way for religious institutions to partner with government institutions to provide urgently needed social services — but not at the expense of constitutional principles that exist to protect both government and religion.
Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, a national, non-partisan grassroots organization that celebrates religious freedom. He also serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.