Faith-Based Initiatives Hearing Written Testimony

Congressional Testimony on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships by Sean Faircloth
Written Testimony of Sean Faircloth, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America

Submitted to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
Committee on the Judiciary

For the Hearing on “Faith-Based Initiatives: Recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships and Other Current Issues”

November 18, 2010

Thank you Chairman Nadler and the other members of the Committee for this opportunity to submit written testimony as you consider the recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships.

The Secular Coalition for America is the leading organization promoting the viewpoints of nontheistic Americans and their federal policy concerns. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and founded in 2005, our mission is to increase the visibility and respect of nontheists in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all Americans. Secular Coalition for America calls on Congress and President Obama to overturn all faith-based initiative executive orders and end the culture of preference for faith-based organizations as conduits for social service funding.

Historical separation between federal funds and religious social services

In 1811, President James Madison—Father of the U.S. Constitution—vetoed a congressional bill that incorporated an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and gave the church authority to care for the poor and to educate poor children. Even though the legislation allocated no public (federal) funds to the congregation, Madison said to would “be precedent for giving to religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civic duty.”

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first Executive Order that banned government defense contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin in 1941.  The prohibitions against discrimination were expanded to all government contractors in 1965 via Executive Order by President Lyndon B. Johnson.  

‘Charitable Choice’ trashes wall of separation

In 1996, “Charitable Choice” was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act. Charitable Choice altered existing law to permit taxpayer-funded social services to be funded through houses of worship. Charitable Choice became a complete reversal in the way the federal government had previously approached contracts with religious organizations. As interpreted during the Clinton Administration, such federal and religious organization partnerships still meant the creation of independent entities, such as 501(c)(3) organizations, and there was no commingling of government funds with the religious organization’s sectarian programs nor the religious nature of the organization with the government-funded social programs. Also during the Clinton Administration, organizations that had an exemption under Title VII were barred from receiving these funds.

In 2001, during the Bush Administration, Charitable Choice received considerable expansion by the Executive Branch through the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.  Then in 2002, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that allowed churches and other faith-based organizations to have easier access to federal funds—by exempting them from specific anti-discrimination laws.

Repercussions of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives

Since 2001, houses of worship and other religious organizations have been able to directly receive federal funds rather than creating a nonprofit 501(C)(3) service organization to separate their sectarian and secular service activities. Additionally, under the faith-based initiatives program houses of worship and other religious organizations have been able to do the following:
•    Receive grants without segregating the funds from private sources.
•    Provide services in spaces replete with religious symbols.
•    Discriminate in hiring practices in favor of co-religionists.

Take action now

While a presidential candidate, President Barack Obama outlined his vision of government partnerships with religiously affiliated organizations.  At a campaign event in Ohio on July 1, 2008, he said “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion.  Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

More than two years later, however, much of the original Bush presidency policies remain in place.  This Subcommittee can send a strong statement to the rest of Congress and the Administration to end this unconstitutional abuse of federal money.  We suggest the following steps be taken:
1.    The Administration should prohibit religious organizations from discriminating in hiring on the basis of religion within federally funded social welfare projects.
2.    The Administration should require houses of worship and other religious institutions, in which religion is so integrally infused that it cannot be separated out, to create separate corporations for the purpose of providing secular, government-funded social services.
3.    The Administrations must end the “case-by-case” approach to determine whether an organization is entitled to an exemption to the religious nondiscrimination laws, and instead the Administration must adopt new and objective standards. 
4.    The Administration must adopt the recommendations of the President’s own Advisory Council that ensure there are secular alternatives to social services provided by religious institutions.  These religious institutions should also be required to ensure that beneficiaries are made aware of these alternatives. 

Secular Coalition for America calls on Congress and President Obama to overturn all faith-based initiative executive orders and end the culture of preference for faith-based organizations as conduits for social service funding.

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