The Obama administration has released guidelines for federal funding to religious organizations; these guidelines were seven years in the making. Advocates for the Orthodox community welcomed the regulations, saying that they reaffirm the government’s commitment to its faith-based funding initiative. Many valuable clarifications are included that will help both organizations and recipients.
Until the advent of the faith-based program, introduced and signed into law by President George W. Bush, regulations governing separation of church and state prevented nearly all religious organizations from receiving federal grants for non-religious activities (such as social services). A key breakthrough of the initial program was that services that are secular in nature but provided by religious entities became eligible to receive funding on a par with organizations having no religious affiliation whatsoever.
At the time, there was widespread concern that an incoming Democratic administration would undo or significantly scale back the program. Amid calls from many on the left to do away with the initiative, President Obama began a review at the beginning of his administration. A council of roughly 25 members representing the gamut of religious and political interests met regularly to discuss possible suggestions that were ultimately delivered to the White House for review. The result has been that all of the program’s fundamental elements remain intact.
Nathan J. Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, who served on the advisory council to the White House, said that the most important aspect of the newly-released guidelines is the very confirmation that the initiative now enjoys bipartisan support.
“We now have a consensus that religious organizations can partner with the government,” he told Hamodia. “This shows a sense of agreement that faith-based organizations can be funded without sacrificing their religious character.”
The new guidelines now define activities that cannot be funded by government money as “explicitly religious,” rather than using the previously used term “inherently religious,” and give clear examples of what is and is not permissible.
Diament said the clarity of the rules is beneficial both because it affords more legal security to religious organizations and because it places the once-controversial program on firmer ground.
There were many attempts to use the review to introduce regulations that would limit the freedom of religious organizations, especially in regard to a clause of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that allows organizations to consider adherence to its faith in hiring. Part and parcel of this movement was pressure to ban organizations receiving funds from discriminating against potential hirees based on moral issues.
Community advocates said that while nothing was added to the regulations that explicitly protected religious organizations in this area, they considered it a victory of sorts that the issue did not find its way into the regulations.
“It may be a positive thing that it was not addressed,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, director of Agudath Israel’s Washington division, which submitted many suggestions regarding the guidelines. “It’s inevitable that it will come up, but we may need more time to go through the issues.”
In addition to its benefiting religious organizations in their quest for federal funds, Rabbi Cohen said that the strengthening of laws preventing those same organizations from discriminating among potential beneficiaries of this funding would be advantageous to members of the Orthodox community who receive services from non-Orthodox institutions.
“There are still many issues to clarify and we have been given assurance from the White House that it will be a continuing discussion,” he said. “We will continue to be pro-active to see that faith-based programs can operate in the way that they should.”