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eNews for Faith-Based Organizations from the IRFA

Update on Faith Based Organizations and the Stimulus Bill. Faith-based organizations (as well as secular nonprofits, of course) must always proceed with caution, open eyes, and legal savvy when considering whether to seek government funds.

Stimulating Faith-Based Organizations?

There is much to be said about the stimulus bill that President Obama signed into law earlier this week, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) - important questions about the wisdom of the stimulus strategy, the mix of projects, tax breaks, and pork . . . . Herewith some notes focused on the elements of ARRA that specifically touch the faith identity of faith-based organizations.  Your comments and additional observations are welcomed.

The law provides multiple extra billions of dollars for all levels of schooling, extra funds for child care, extra funds for welfare programs (TANF) and other social services, and money for a new version of the Compassion Capital Fund. 

Faith-based organizations (as well as secular nonprofits, of course) must always proceed with caution, open eyes, and legal savvy when considering whether to seek government funds.

New Education Funding

A Level Playing Field:  ESEA and IDEA services in elementary and secondary schools

Billions in extra funding is allocated to services for disadvantaged and special needs students under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  These laws have always contained an equitable expenditure requirement that ensures that students in private and faith-based schools are served.

A Qualified Level Playing Field:  Faith-based Higher Education

States may use a small portion of the $54 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for the "modernization, renovation, or repair" of higher education facilities-including private and faith-based colleges and universities.   However, these funds cannot be expended on facilities "used for sectarian instruction or religious worship" (the House bill also added "or a school or department of divinity") or where "a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission."

This limitation sparked an outcry, e.g., from the American Center for Law and Justice, and led to an unsuccessful effort by Sen. DeMint (R-SC) to strip out the restriction.  The critics suggested that the restrictive language could require colleges to forbid religious student clubs from meeting in buildings renovated with stimulus money. 

As noted in a Christianity Today article and elsewhere, this may have been an overreaction:  a restriction on expending federal funds on facilities with a specifically religious use has long been in place, and, on the other hand, court cases have upheld the right of religious groups to utilize university facilities if other groups are allowed to do so.   Private education officials also point out that, given the many other claims on the stimulus money, it is unlikely that much if any will be available to religious higher education.

Yet the language is overly broad, as Robert Shibley points out:  the authors of the law could have said that for a facility to be ineligible for funding, it would have to be "primarily used for sectarian instruction or religious worship," thus clearly ruling out chapels while clearly ruling in dorms, classroom buildings, and student centers where occasional worship and Bible studies take place.   If such activities are banned in the future in facilities renovated with stimulus funds, some student group will take the university to court and will win-but litigation shouldn't be required to enjoy religious freedom.   The imprecise language is troubling; even more troubling is Congress' unwillingness to modify the language.

A Bias Against Faith-Based Schools is Not Prohibited

A large portion of the billions of dollars of State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) money that will go to public school districts must be spent on special services authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and the Perkins Act (this ESEA and IDEA spending is additional to the extra expenditures described above).  All of these programs require or permit participation by private entities, including faith-based schools.  However, the stimulus bill language does not clearly require that faith-based schools be included in this additional spending.  (The law prohibits use of the money to enable students to attend private schools, but funding special services to students already attending such schools is different than paying their tuition so that they can attend.)  Some congressional staffers have claimed that the ambiguity is deliberate; efforts by private school supporters to get a clear requirement of equitable distribution to students and teachers were not successful.

CAPE, the Council for American Private Education, recommends that faith-based and other private schools that are interested in these programs should take action, urging their governor, state education officials, and local school officials to include students and teachers in private schools in these programs. 

Many faith-based and other private schools are not oriented to such political action and are too busy to spend much time on it.  The larger and more active schools and school associations would strengthen their arguments with the public officials and also help to build the strength of the faith-based education sector if they invite the smaller schools and schools of other faiths to join them when they go to government to seek equitable treatment.

A Bias Against Private and Religious Education

Elementary and Secondary Schools:  A portion of the SFSF money can be used to repair and upgrade these schools, including bringing them up to "green" standards-but not if those schools are private, including faith-based.  Secular and faith-based private schools are excluded, even though expenditures on them, too, would stimulate the economy, and public investments in their healthiness is a small price to pay for the great public service they provide of educating so many children outside the government-funded system.   See the commentary by Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

Elementary, Secondary, and Post-Secondary Schools:  A large part of the SFSF money will be used to restore education funding that has been cut due to states' budget crises.  This compensatory money will go only to school districts and public higher education-even though the SFSF funds come from all taxpayers, the income of faith-based schools and higher education has also been reduced by the economic crisis, and spending in the private school sector would have equivalent stimulus value.

No Change-and No Improvement-in Early Childhood Programs

The stimulus plan boosts spending on federally funded child care-a program that extensively uses vouchers (or certificates) rather than contracts, so that parents can select the child care provider of their choice, including faith-based providers whose programs include religious activities.

Extra money is also allocated to Head Start, a program that nonprofit organizations are eligible to participate in.  However, the Head Start law prohibits religious hiring by grantees, and a determined effort in the last Congress to remove this barrier to faith-based organizations failed.  The stimulus law leaves the barrier intact.

Faith-Based Eligibility Maintained in Welfare and Social Spending

Both the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program and the welfare program (TANF) received large additional infusions of federal funds.  Some aspects of these programs were modified (perhaps weakening welfare reform's goal of propelling people into self-sufficiency).  But no changes were made to the Charitable Choice provisions included in the laws for these programs.  Charitable Choice creates a level playing field, enabling faith-based organizations to take part, if they choose, without sacrificing or hiding their religious character. 

Compassion Capital Fund, Version 2.0

The stimulus law creates a new program to build the capacity of private social service programs to replace the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), the Bush administration's program.  CCF awarded grants to intermediaries to provide training to improve the management, programs, and fundraising of grassroots groups, including faith-based organizations, and also very small minigrants to help those groups purchase equipment or additional training. 

Critics of the faith-based initiative, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,  sought during consideration of the stimulus bill either to eliminate CCF entirely or to rewrite its rules to exclude so-called pervasively sectarian organizations from receiving its help.

Instead, the conference committee created a new $50 million program "to award capacity-building grants directly to nonprofit organizations."  The money is intended to "expand the delivery of social services to individuals and communities affected by the economic downturn," and grantees must produce measurable results. 

It is not yet clear how this new program will function.  There is nothing in the ARRA language or in the section of the Social Security law that will govern these expenditures to exclude faith-based organizations.  Candidate Obama stressed his intention that grassroots groups be engaged and that the federal government should work with larger organizations to provide training and other assistance to those smaller groups.  These were the goals, too, of CCF. 


Eye on the Media

It's a pleasant surprise:  a front-page Washington Post article on February 20, "Government Cutbacks Leave Faith-Based Services Hurting," highlighted the important community-serving work being done by a range of faith-based organizations despite the economic double bind of lower income and higher demand-without mentioning the dreaded proselytizing and religious hiring. 


The Poverty Forum

 On February 17, 2009, at the National Press Club, the Poverty Forum released a bipartisan set of mid-range policy proposals to reduce domestic poverty.  The participants in the Forum are Christian believers coming from various points on the political spectrum but united in the conviction that society-faith communities, government, nonprofit organizations, individuals, companies-have a responsibility to come to the aid of our needy neighbors.  Many of the proposals involve faith-based as well as community-based organizations.  I was one of the participants.  For further information, go to the website:


  For further information:

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