Faith-based social services are funded by the federal government through your taxes, even though that can lead to discrimination and a lack of those very services.

The 1999 Charitable Choice Act allowed federal taxes to fund faith-based social services. Still, it limited these services to “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), and substance abuse treatment programs,” providing they not proselytize.

When Congress refused President G.W. Bush’s demand to expand eligible services, he issued an executive order that included many more faith-based social services than initially intended. Furthermore, that executive order allowed “faith-based organizations (to provide) government-funded services and remain independent of governmental controls, to discriminate in their hiring practices, and to conduct inherently religious activities.”

According to the ACLU, the Charitable Choice Act “raises serious concerns about the Act’s constitutional viability under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment” and “imposes an impermissible bind on governmental entities – by forbidding ‘discrimination’ in the selection of contractors where the Constitution clearly requires it.”

Those who support government-funded faith-based social services rightly see the law will help religious groups deliver much-needed social services. No argument there.

But at what cost? Opponents welcome the support religious organizations can provide for social services, but not at the cost of violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause or having the practice morph into federally funded proselytizing. “Explicit protections must be put in place that prohibits religious coercion in the provision of social services. Taxpayer-funded programs must respect the personal choices of all Americans to worship as they see fit,” the ACLU argues.

Given that funding faith-based social services was a presidential priority, rules were put in place to “reach deeply into and widely across the federal government (to fund) the Faith-Based and Community Initiative.” According to David J. Wright, Roundtable Project director, “This has translated to faith groups receiving a significant share of federal social service grants.”

Faith-based federal funding has resulted in far fewer secular substance abuse recovery programs and homeless shelters. In 2007, a California judge asked an atheist to choose between spending 100 days in jail or attending the only local substance abuse recovery program, one that was, unfortunately, faith-based.

Forcing anyone to choose between incarceration and attending a substance abuse recovery program run by a faith other than the defendant’s is no choice. The defendant sued, was awarded just under $2 million, and California no longer forces any defendant to attend faith-based recovery programs.

Almost 10 years later, an Ohio judge gave an atheist the same choice: Spend 30 days in the only local substance abuse program, also faith-based, or be subjected to “incarceration or other detrimental consequences.”

The defendant sued, rightfully claiming that “substance abuse counseling can be successfully provided without resorting to religious superstition, appeals to the supernatural, and interference in plaintiff’s sincerely held beliefs concerning religion, Christianity, humanism, and atheism.”

In Washington, D.C., the preponderance of faith-based homeless shelters has all but eliminated secular homeless shelters. Out of the 14 homeless shelters I could find, 10 were faith-based and four were secular, but only two of those secular shelters serve the LGBT community. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is cutting funding to local nonprofit homeless shelters by 10% to 15% due to a “budget shortfall of more than $200 million in the current fiscal year.” Many homeless shelters agree that cutting that much out of a program will prevent them from delivering their services to the homeless population.

Faith-based homeless shelters are likely to stay open because of federal funding. But the shelters that rely almost entirely on city funding may have to close. If the two shelters serving the LGBT community close, where will these homeless people go? President G.W. Bush put rules into the charitable choice provision that grant faith-based organizations independence from government controls. Consequently, faith-based homeless shelters that receive federal funding are not required to serve the LGBT community.

Those who support the federal government funding faith-based social services would be wise to consider what the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination had to say: Charitable Choice, they argued, explicitly allows “federally funded employment discrimination (and) allow the proselytization of people seeking aid.”

Furthermore, they said, it is unconstitutional, harms religious liberty, and turns back the clock on civil rights.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He welcomes comments at [email protected] and


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