By Bob Allen
The White House announced proposed rules Aug. 5 from nine federal agencies clarifying rights and responsibilities of faith-based and community organizations receiving taxpayer funds.
The proposals, which must pass through a 60-day period of public comment before being finalized, implement a 2010 executive order by President Obama to reform the relationship between religious bodies and government entities. The executive order adopted recommendations made by the first President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships intended to strengthen both the effectiveness and constitutional and legal footing of government contracts with faith-based providers of social services.
“The proposed rules clarify the principle that organizations offering explicitly religious activities may not subsidize those activities with direct federal financial assistance and must separate such activities in time or location from programs supported with direct federal financial assistance,” Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said in a White House blog announcing the proposed rule changes. “For example, if a faith-based provider offers a Bible study as well as a federally supported job training program, the Bible study must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program.”
Rogers, a lifelong Baptist who once worked for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the rules also clarify that people who receive benefits supported by direct financial federal assistance cannot be discriminated against because of religious belief or be required to participate in any religious activities in exchange for receiving a social service.
They also include safeguards to ensure that religious organizations can compete fairly with secular nonprofits in qualifying for federal aid without surrendering their religious identity. Providers are entitled to use religious terms in their organizational names and include religious terms in their mission statements and other organizational documents. The rules also set forth definitions for “direct” and “indirect” federal financial assistant, terms that in the past have been a source of confusion for some providers.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty issued a statement terming the rulemaking process an “important step toward implementing reforms in government partnerships with faith-based groups.”
“We appreciate the hard work of the agencies that is aimed at clarifying and strengthening protections for religious liberty, consistent with the executive order,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. “The proposed regulations will increase the understanding of the rights and responsibilities of both service providers and beneficiaries. We look forward to reviewing the proposed regulations and submitting comments as needed.”
Leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said they believe the regulations improve religious-freedom protections for the beneficiaries of social-services programs, clarify the responsibilities of faith-based social service providers and increase transparency to the taxpayer.
“When you decide to apply for government funds to deliver social services, there are strings attached,” said AU Executive Director Barry Lynn. “These proposed regulations should go a long way toward ensuring that taxpayer-funded organizations abide by the Constitution. By doing so, the regulations will ensure those who seek services won’t be kicked out of a homeless shelter or a drug treatment class because they don’t want to pray or listen to preaching.”
Rogers, who before her appointment to the Obama administration chaired the advisory council that made the recommendations to the president, welcomed the news and said she looks forward to continuing the rulemaking process.