Religious Groups Want Faith-Based Funding With No Strings Attached

In October of 2006, The New York Times published a series of articles about the hundreds of exemptions for religious groups that appear in various state and federal statutes. Some I could justify; most I could not.

Things might be getting worse. The President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is debating a whole series of new potential exemptions, exceptions and special treatments for religious groups operating with federal dollars.

This is a problem because the Council is not composed only of parties for whom these debates are theoretical; it also contains many members whose own organizations have benefited in the past from significant federal largesse and who hope to see Uncle Sam putting more money into their metaphorical collection plates. 

I served on a task force that advised the Council, and I took that opportunity to argue against these “no strings attached” grants and contracts. But the tide is clearly turning toward a majority view that refuses to place even the tiniest burden on recipient faith-based groups.

The Obama administration has taken a very hard line against hiring former “lobbyists” or allowing their employees from going into “lobbying” after leaving the executive branch. A White House ethics office even issued a memo saying it was the president’s intent not to have “lobbyists” (even those with no financial interest in the matters before them) on federal advisory commissions from those agencies.

Apparently, the president’s own advisory council on the faith-based initiative is under a somewhat different set of rules. First, there are many people on the Council who regularly serve as advocates to Congress on a variety of issues, and that is the general definition of what lobbying is.

The problem is, some of these people may not see themselves as lobbyists because they are not required to register or report under federal lobbying disclosure laws because there is an exemption for representatives of churches and other faith-based entities. (To my knowledge, only one religious group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, actually registers its advocates and fills out the quarterly forms that indicate the issues on which they are working and roughly how much time they are spending.) So, even if the “Faith-Based” Council had a lobbyist bar, these folks aren’t covered.

Moreover, as the discussion is progressing in the Council, it is clear that some members are consistently against any additional regulation to preserve church-state separation and civil-rights principles (particularly if it would cover them).

Here are a few examples. The president of Catholic Charities and the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops object to requiring recipients of federal funds to cover up religious iconography or banners or artwork in the places in a building which are supposed to be offering the “secular” services funded by the government. Even more astonishing, they even oppose a mandated standard that tells the recipients to remove or cover such items if it is “reasonably feasible.”

One member suggested this would be a loose standard that would lead to encouraging “religion police.” Yet the idea of directing a person to act in a certain way if “feasible” is contained in numerous existing federal laws. It is hardly a major disruption to normal activities.

The “lobbyist in everything but name” from the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations supports using tax funds to “retrofit” houses of worship as part of initiatives to give grants to libraries and other secular entities to save energy and “go green.” He was “advocating” this position last year before the various congressional committees that were considering authorizing environmental programs. He is a very good advocate, but many find the idea of having government pay for a better air conditioning system for a synagogue or solar panels for the Methodist church an astonishingly bad idea – and unconstitutional.

Normally, we don’t view the federal government as the entity that offers the cash for making a congregation more comfortable or more “carbon positive.” Many of us think that this is really a decision for the worshippers, one supported by their own funding.

But, wait, it gets worse. Some of the same people, along with other former grant recipients, are also opposed to requiring that a religious group form a separate corporation to handle federal dollars. How about a separate bank account? No, we were told, even that could inhibit small groups from seeking government funding.

I will never forget what one of the other advisers to the Council said on our first conference call. She runs a very successful charity in the Midwest and opined that if an agency can’t manage to incorporate, maybe it couldn’t manage the money it wants either. That sounds like a downright shocking statement in light of the view that seems ready to prevail that even getting that second bank account would just be too onerous to bear. 

I should note that some of the Council members say that they might “recommend” such conduct; they simply don’t want to “require” it. This has always seemed like a silly argument – like encouraging people to stop at red lights but not mandating it.

It looks like we have a lot of work to do. I’ll keep you posted on where all this ends up.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State