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"Obama Faith-based Grant Program Maintains Equal Treatment Standards" and Other News for Faith-Based Organizations from the IRFA

From the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, this newsletter features articles on Obama's Faith-based Grant Program, health care reform, pluralism and marriage redefinition as they relate to religious freedom.

Obama Faith-based Grant Program Maintains Equal Treatment Standards

When President Obama announced his faith-based initiative on February 5, he left in place the "level playing field" rules that the Bush administration adopted (the "equal treatment" regulations) and that Congress enacted during the Clinton administration (Charitable Choice).  These rules were a response to the Supreme Court's move from a "no-aid to religion" standard to a neutrality or equal opportunity interpretation the Constitution's church-state rules. 

However, by stressing the need to ensure respect for constitutional standards when the federal government collaborates with faith-based groups, President (and presidential candidate) Obama implied that the existing rules need to be significantly changed.  Indeed, he specifically authorized Joshua DuBois, director of the new White House faith-based office, to seek the Attorney General's view on such matters, and instituted a case-by-case review process for the complicated but vital issue of religious hiring by faith-based groups that receive federal funds.

The administration has now given a strong and specific statement of the rules it believes should govern federal funding that goes to faith-based organizations.  On May 11th the Department of Health and Human Services announced grants for the new Strengthening Communities Fund (SCF)-the new version of the Bush Compassion Capital Fund, this one created by the stimulus bill (American Recovery and Revitalization Act). 

SCF has two parts:  (1) one set of grants will go to experienced groups to provide capacity-building help and small grants to grassroots groups to help them better serve their communities in the economic recovery process; (2) the other set of grants will go to state, city, county, and tribal faith-based offices to help them provide capacity-building assistance to community groups and to improve their own ability to better serve such groups. 

The standards for faith-based involvement?  The grants, mini-grants, and services cannot be biased either for or against faith-based applicants.  Faith-based participants need not remove religious symbols, create a secular board of directors, strip religious references from their mission statement, nor banish voluntary religious activities that are privately funded.  There is no new ban on religious hiring.  The federal funds have to be used to support secular services, not worship or scripture teaching.  People and groups must be served without regard to their religion.

The program standards are announced under the title, "Secular Social Service Programs," but the regulations that apply are the HHS Equal Treatment regulations adopted in 2004.

So far, so good.
Health Care Reform and Religious Freedom

Many faith-based health institutions and professionals insist on the freedom to follow their religious convictions about appropriate care even when this requires deviating from certain secular standards.  Health care change, if it is to yield a better, more just system that improves health must be concerned not only with covering the uninsured, reducing waste, improving the effectiveness of treatments, and so on, but also with protecting the religious freedom of hospitals and doctors. 

Surely that means at least excluding any mandate to cover abortions while maintaining or improving the conscience-protection regulations adopted by the Bush administration. 

But protecting religious freedom in health care also has a structural component.  As the Catholic Health Association says, "The health care system should allow and encourage involvement of the public and private sectors including voluntary, religious and not-for-profit organizations, and it should respect the religious and ethical values of patients and health care providers alike."  In fact, respect for those convictions and practices is only possible if there is institutional pluralism.

If the government operates or stringently regulates every aspect of health care, there can be at most a marginal accommodation of religious freedom, allowing this doctor or that nurse to opt out of some procedure, permitting the occasional clinic or hospital not to offer every single procedure.  True religious freedom, and good health care, requires robust pluralism:  a system in which faith-based health care institutions and systems are free to define and offer health care excellence in a different-pro-life-way.  And it will be a system in which insurance companies are able to offer to doctors, hospitals, and patients a health care plan that might not embody every value of the current government but does respect a faith-based vision of God-honoring living and medical care.
Pluralism and Religious Freedom

As just noted for health care, but surely true also for child care, k-12 schools, higher education, drug-treatment services, think tanks, political parties, and much more, true religious freedom, the adequate protection of conscience, requires structural pluralism.  That means rejecting a system in which the government delivers or specifies all of what can be done and how it can be done, and the maintenance of a system in which multiple private organizations, and possibly also the government, can define and offer those services.  Governmental services and teaching has to be secular and uniform-that's suitable for what government must do but inadequate where there are deep differences about how best to do something.  Confessional pluralism (those deep differences) can only be respected when there is structural pluralism (services and instruction can be offered by multiple private groups and not just by government). 

These two dimensions of principled pluralism are contained in the Catholic doctrine of subsidiary and the neo-Calvinist concept of sphere sovereignty.  See Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, ed., Christianity and Civil Society: Catholic and Neo-Calvinist Perspectives (Lexington Books, 2008).

See also Michael Fogarty's classic account of Christian Democracy, which uses the terms "horizontal" and "vertical" pluralism and shows how and why these concepts were developed as European Christians faced secularizing societies in which governmental power was growing.  Fogarty, Christian Democracy in Western Europe, 1820-1953 (first published 1957, Routledge & Kegan Paul).

And for a compact discussion of the concepts, see Jim Skillen's Recharging the American Experiment:  Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community (Center for Public Justice and Baker Books, 1994).
Marriage Redefinition and Religious Freedom

The April 23 issue of the eNews noted the important April 20th letter by four law scholars to a Connecticut legislator asking that a range of religious-freedom protections be put into the law if the state was going to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.  On May 1st the scholars wrote to the Governor of Maine asking for robust religious-freedom protections to be included in that state's proposed same-sex marriage law.

Some strong defenders of religious liberty are worried that designing and proposing robust religious freedom protections to be included in marriage-redefinition laws has the effect of easing the adoption of same-sex marriage by legislatures:  lawmakers who are comforted that religious institutions will be protected may not fight so hard to protect marriage itself.  But these are two separate issues.  Fighting for a law to keep "adult" businesses away from schools doesn't require believing that "adult" businesses are good for adults-just that they are bad for children. 

The time to craft and propose strong-sufficient-protections for people and institutions that have moral and religious objections to marriage redefinition is when, or before, a state begins to think about redefining marriage.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life just released "Shifting Boundaries:  The Establishment Clause and Government Funding of Religious Schools and Other Faith-Based Organizations."  This isn't the memo that the strongest advocates of the faith-based initiative would write, but it gives a generally fair and readable account of constitutional and legal developments.  Critics who want to insist that the Clinton-era and Bush faith-based reforms are patently unconstitutional and must be reversed immediately will find no solace here.
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