Faith-based social initiatives are forms of social and community support that religious institutions such as mosques, churches, and synagogues provide to help solve social problems. For some, religious institutions are a main source of support and guidance. This support can include building and funding elementary schools, providing health care, sponsoring local neighborhood watch programs, operating soup kitchens, providing clothing for the needy, and building low-income housing and neighborhood renewal.
For quite some time, religious and community leaders and politicians alike have argued for more governmental support for their programs because of the impact they have on their communities. Indeed, when most people think of faith-based social initiatives, they think of the fairly recent federal programs that allow churches and other religious institutions to seek funding to support their charities and community works. These programs encourage faith-based institutions to apply for and receive federal funds from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development, in addition to any funding from state and local sources.
These programs evolved after January 29, 2001, when President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13199, establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This office, under the executive branch of the federal government, oversees the government’s efforts in encouraging both religious and community-based institutions to supply social services as well as provide financial and even, in some cases, technical support for social service programs. Another function of this office is to ensure that policy developed is in accordance with administrative goals that encourage charity and community action and identify and replicate successful community service programs.
Origins of Federal Aid
Discussions about federal funding of faith institutions began with welfare reform proposals in the 1990s that sought to have individuals take more control over their well-being and also to reduce welfare fraud. In 1996, President Clinton signed legislation that reduced government funding for welfare by limiting the length of time that people can receive welfare support. Section 104 of this welfare reform law, the Charitable Choice provision, removed barriers preventing religious institutions from applying for federal welfare funds. Simultaneously, this provision also stressed the separation of church and state by allowing these religious institutions to promote their religious beliefs without government intervention yet stipulating government funds could not be used for religious activities such as religious instruction or missionary work.
Because of attention paid to the more dramatic aspects of the welfare reform overhaul, for the most part, Charitable Choice fell between the legal cracks until the 2000 presidential campaign, when both candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, endorsed such funding of religious institutions for social service programs. Immediately after taking office, Bush established the aforementioned Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to implement the Charitable Choice provision.
Controversy and Opposition
These initiatives quickly became highly controversial. Civil libertarians, secularists, and opponents on both ends of the political spectrum argued that federal funding of faith organizations violated the First Amendment’s “separation between church and state.” They feared that federal taxpayer funds could be used to support proselytizing, discrimination in hiring, and the building of houses of worship. Such concerns extended not only to the separation of church and state issue but also to the fear of some that public funding would go to support religious institutions with whom other taxpayers disagree, whether it be a clash of religious values and beliefs or atheists unwilling to support any religion. Indeed, little, if any, federal monitoring has occurred to ensure compliance with the safeguards against proselytizing.
Debates surrounding employment discrimination increased in 2001 when the Salvation Army requested an exemption in hiring gays and lesbians, maintaining that homosexuality went against their religious beliefs and morals and that receiving federal funds should not force religious institutions to change their beliefs. A New York Federal Court subsequently ruled that the organization could use religious criteria in its hiring. Critics of the decision argue that, theoretically speaking, the Salvation Army is willing to accept tax dollars from all Americans, including gays and lesbians, but is unwilling to hire all Americans, including homosexuals.
Concerns about public funding for religious buildings proved legitimate to critics when, in 2003, the Bush administration, through the Department of Housing and the National Parks Service, allowed the allocation of federal funds for the construction or rehabilitation of such edifices, as long as community service programs would be enacted.
Although some religious institutions may have beliefs that discriminate against other groups and others are controversial—for example, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans, the Nation of Islam, Scientologists, or even religious cults—all are eligible for federal funding. Because no definition exists as to what constitutes a religious institution and what types deserve funding, the current position of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is that, as long as these religious institutions develop programs to create positive social change, they are eligible for funding.
Although federal funding of faith-based initiatives is part of federal law, the controversy still continues. Few would deny the influential role that faith-based institutions play within their communities to ease social problems; they reach people in ways that other service organizations, government agencies, and even community-based organizations cannot. However, the church-state separation issue remains, and challenges to the constitutionality of such public funding continue as of this writing. Only time will tell if a change in national leadership or future Supreme Court rulings will alter or reaffirm this approach to improving society.
- Black, Amy E., Douglas L. Koopman, and David K. Ryden. 2004. Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush S Faith-Based Initiatives. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
- Formicola, Jo Renee, Mary C. Segers, and Paul Weber. 2003. Faith-Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Kuo, David. 2006. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. New York: Free Press.
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