Crossing the line
How did the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power distribute new water-saving, low-flush toilets to thousands of residents quickly? It turned to what many consider a natural ally: the city’s churches. Specifically, the department asked FAME Renaissance — a religiously affiliated community economic development corporation linked with Los Angeles’ oldest black congregation — to help install the new units, as well as provide information about the program to many low-income neighborhoods.
City staff worked with FAME Renaissance to launch a plumber’s apprenticeship program to lower the installation cost for residents. The Department of Water and Power was so pleased with the partnership that it extended its work with FAME Renaissance to other areas, including picking up used motor oil and other household hazardous waste, and distributing low-wattage light bulbs and faucet aerators to conserve energy and water.
Although President Bush’s faith-based initiative has inspired a vigorous debate over the proper relationship between government and religious organizations, partnerships between faith-based organizations (FBOs) and local governments have been in place for many years. In fact, the creativity and the number of such partnerships have increased. Driven by pressing needs and constrained by scarce resources, local public officials are looking for ways to collaborate with FBOs through informal arrangements, as well as through formal grants and contracts.
Feds formalize faith initiatives
Government support for faith-based social services is now closely associated with the Bush Administration. Although both presidential candidates during the 2000 campaign touted the potential benefits of an increased role for religiously affiliated providers of social services, President Bush pushed the policy to the top of his domestic agenda after the election. He issued an executive order less than two weeks after taking office to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Subsequent executive orders established Centers for Faith-based and Community Initiatives at seven federal departments: Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and State.
The administration’s goal has been to increase FBOs’ participation in federally funded programs by removing existing barriers and creating new opportunities to compete for grants and contracts. To do that, the centers at the various agencies conducted internal audits to determine how well federal agencies were reaching out in their contracting to FBOs. They also launched a campaign to encourage faith-based groups to apply for federal funding.
The administration’s efforts were met with considerable opposition. The initiative touches on controversial issues, such as welfare policy, as well as areas of constitutional law that are far from settled, such as the proper relationship between church and state. The most focused resistance to the faith-based initiative comes from those who advocate a strict separation between church and state. Some opponents are people of faith who want to protect religious institutions from government involvement. Others are civil libertarians who want to protect individual freedoms and are concerned that faith-based providers will engage in proselytizing while providing services with government money. Finally, a major area of concern for opponents of the initiative is potential employment discrimination by religious organizations.
The attention to proposed federal policy changes sometimes masks what has long been taking place at the state and local levels. A majority of states have taken steps to increase FBO involvement in social service programs, according to a report by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. About half, for instance, have established an office of faith-based initiatives or have appointed a faith-based liaison. Cities also are formalizing their outreach to the faith community. At least 150 cities, including Philadelphia and Miami, have established faith-based liaison positions, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM).
Although the federal government has been increasing outreach, not all faith-based groups are chomping at the bit to become more involved with government. Some FBOs are unprepared to rise to the challenge, lacking capacity to expand their services or to negotiate the complicated federal grants process. In addition, some are leery about “taking Caesar’s coin.” Rather, they prize their autonomy and ability to operate free of government control, as well as to challenge government’s responsibility to the poor.
Other FBOs are quite interested in expanding the reach of their programs with government grants and contracts to provide social services. Amy Sherman of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute released one of the few studies on the extent of government-faith collaborations in April 2002. The study focused on county and state officials in 15 states across the country and found that the number of contracts with FBOs had increased dramatically from 2000. For example, Michigan’s FBO contracts increased from 9 in 2000 to 129 in 2002.
Local ties that bind
Churches and religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations often are natural partners in addressing a wide range of community needs. Discussions at the local level center strictly on what works. For example, when USCM launched its Taskforce on Faith-based and Community Initiatives in June 2003, the goal was to discover best practices and innovative programs that already existed, and the programs that emerged reflected the variety of partnerships that develop at the local level.
Some of the programs involved basic forms of informal collaboration, such as opening a dialogue between government and the faith community. In Charlotte, N.C., for instance, Mayor Patrick McCrory set up a communications system between the city and churches and other local religious nonprofit organizations shortly after his election in 1995. When conditions warranted, the mayor would send a fax to all the churches to disseminate information. McCrory believes that system has helped take the steam out of several potentially volatile situations. The same system allows the mayor to hear concerns from the pastors, who have an ear for the heartbeat of the community. The mayor also has convened ministers to deal with issues of race and ethnicity in the city.
At a time when cities’ resources are strapped, they can turn to the faith community to find additional resources of volunteers and an avenue for communicating with hard-to-reach communities. Realizing that early on in his tenure, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz established a quarterly Pastoral Round-table, inviting leaders from the 1,200 congregations and FBOs in Miami to workshops on topics such as how to set up a nonprofit organization and navigate the HUD SuperNOFA process, to policy issues such as civil rights for ex-offenders.
The city also has worked with the faith community to sign up individuals for the earned income tax credit program; build low-income housing; host homeownership fairs; establish new day care centers, charter schools and after-school programs; and feed the homeless. As one indicator of the program’s success, participation in the earned income tax credit program doubled in the past year.
Holding a helping hand
In their efforts to increase participation by FBOs, local governments have discovered that FBOs may need assistance, especially when applying for government contracts. As a result, local governments are revising grant procedures and offering technical assistance to make the grant application process easier for small organizations.
The Department of Social Services in Kern County, Calif., has simplified its Request for Proposals and made it more open-ended with the intent to encourage grass-roots organizations to think about how their services might fit the department’s broad goals. Similarly, Los Angeles County has been working with a faith-based coordination council to make information about human service contracts more accessible to FBOs. As a first step, the council is coordinating with human service agencies to post contracts on the county’s Web site for which faith-based and community organizations are eligible providers.
Also, Los Angeles County is developing an outreach and technical assistance program to the faith community in the childcare area. Religious congregations, with available space in neighborhoods throughout the county and a ready source of volunteers, can be tapped to provide affordable childcare where few options currently exist. The county will provide technical assistance — such as staff development and fundraising training — to churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious congregations to help them meet licensing requirements.
The role of faith-based social service providers in the social welfare system has been a subject of hot debate at the federal level over the past few years. However, looking beyond the Beltway to the states, counties and cities, the issue no longer is whether to join with the faith community to provide social services, but how best to do so.
Julie Sulc is a program officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia.
Bush fights the battle for FBOs
Shortly after the 2000 election, the Bush Administration promoted legislation that would have increased opportunities for FBOs to compete for federal dollars to provide social services. The legislation passed in the House along party lines but met with stiff resistance in the Senate. The legislation would have expanded Charitable Choice — a provision that was part of the welfare reform passed in 1996 that allows FBOs to retain their religious identities when applying for federal funding — to other federally funded social service programs. This year, the Senate finally passed a compromise bill, the CARE legislation, without the controversial Charitable Choice provisions. The legislation is still awaiting House approval.
Now, advocates and opponents of the Administration’s position are introducing amendments in a number of bills as a way to accomplish their respective legislative agendas, particularly on the most controversial aspect of the initiative — employment practices. Advocates maintain that FBOs should have the right to hire individuals who share their religious beliefs. Opponents argue that such exemptions from employment discrimination laws are unconstitutional.
While the legislation has met with obstacles, the Administration has made strides by issuing executive orders. For instance, the President has directed federal agencies not to favor or disfavor FBOs for participation in federally funded programs. In addition, he has specified that FBOs must be allowed to retain their religious independence and character, including the right to hire and fire employees based on their religious beliefs. In response to those executive orders, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services have proposed revised rules to several grant programs, including the Community Services Block Grant.
Still unclear is how the initiative will fare in court. Federal constitutional law permits direct grants to FBOs as long as the money is used only for secular activities. Some question whether faith-based groups can, in practice, parse out the “faith” element from their social service programs and thus pass constitutional muster. When federal support is channeled through indirect means, such as vouchers, the constitutional standard is not as strict. The Supreme Court ruled last year that indirect financial support to FBOs is permitted as long as beneficiaries have genuine, independent choices between religious and secular service providers.
Because federal dollars for social service programs often flow through state and/or local governments, the President’s initiative may be constrained by state and local law. In fact, many state constitutions explicitly limit the transfer of public funds to religious organizations. The legal issues involving employment are even more complex. Although FBOs are frequently exempt from federal prohibitions on considering religious belief in employment practices, states and cities vary in their laws on the subject, and a number of them do not extend such exemptions to state or city funds.
— Julie Sulc