Guidelines posted for faith-based participation in government programs

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has issued guidelines for how federally funded faith-based programs should be administered, ranging from explanations of what is considered "explicitly religious" activity to how organizations can preserve their religious identities while using federal funds to provide services.

Among the guidelines are that faith organizations are not required to remove crucifixes, icons and other religious material from rooms where federally funded services are provided; and that any client who receives services should, on request, be referred to a non-faith-based organization if one is available.

The guidelines also spell out, for instance, that Alcoholics Anonymous programs are considered "explicitly religious" and therefore ineligible to participate. And, while employees of most federally funded programs must remain neutral when it comes to religion, participants are free to express their faith, including by prayer. Among possible exceptions to that policy are programs that fund some work of prison chaplains, it said.

The document also says the religious character of an organization may neither favor or count against applicants for funding.

While the guidelines addressed many of the major areas of concern raised by the presidential Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, there are topics they don't cover, said Melissa Rogers, a First Amendment attorney who chaired the council and participated in an interagency task force to draft the guidelines.

"There was a long list of subjects we wanted to discuss," said Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School. "This addresses some of the most important ones that cut across a large number of service providers and situations."

She cited its detailed discussion of how to keep religious and federally funded activities separate, for example.

"That topic needed some practical guidance," she said. "It's very important when a religious provider is offering religious activities such as Bible study, or prayer and worship that they be clearly separate from the federally funded program."

The 50-page document published online April 27 largely adopts the recommendations of an interagency task force representing more than a dozen federal agencies, which in turn based its work on recommendations from the advisory council. The council's 37-page report of March 2010 included recommendations about clarifying the legal relationships of government-private partnerships and provided a set of principles for administering federal funds to be used by faith-based and neighborhood organizations.

One area not addressed in either the 2010 report or the new guidelines is the question of how hiring decisions might be affected at organizations that accept federal funds for social service programs. The advisory council was directed to "not address the issue of religion-based employment decisions regarding jobs partially or fully subsidized by federal funds," said its report. The April 27 guidelines did not mention such employment decisions.

Rogers said she regrets that "the White House has not moved" on the subject of employment guidelines. While courts have upheld the right of churches to employ in ministry only people who adhere to the faith's teachings, it's less clear where the line falls when a faith-based organization hires someone to work under a federally funded program.

In response to questions about how employment questions should be handled, a White House official told CNS on background May 2 that "the administration will continue to fund organizations that engage in religious hiring... (following) the pre-existing policies and practices in this area."

The new document includes a long list of questions and answers, some quite lengthy, about how to handle a range of issues, from application processes, to advertising services and what should be considered in arranging for guest speakers at funded programs.

Rogers said the final directives did not cover some areas the council wanted addressed, such as whether churches should be encouraged to create separate corporate entities to manage federal grants.

But the guidelines - and the process of having multiple agencies involved in creating them - go a long way toward uniformity in how different government offices deal with programs contracted to faith-based organizations, she said.

At the same time, Rogers said the way the guidelines are presented makes it clear that there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

"A wooden application of policies can do more harm than good," she said. "It's absolutely important that recipients and government agencies understand both the letter and the principle of the policies."

The advisory council was made up of representatives of diverse religious and secular organizations including: the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Incarnate Word Foundation, the Interfaith Alliance, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted Rogers in a blog post on the Web page for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office is the renamed and reorganized successor to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives created by President George W. Bush. The advisory council was named in 2009 with 25 members, each to serve a one-year term. In February 2011, a dozen replacements were named for 12 members who stepped off, but since then there have been no other changes and no new mandates for the group.

The White House official said the administration continues "to search for the most qualified candidates to serve on the faith advisory council," and that "it would be premature to speculate on what issues the new members of the council will examine."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970