Should We Put Faith in Charitable Choice?

by Amy Sherman

The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities
Fall 2000, Volume 10, Issue 4

The 1996 federal welfare reforms transformed the way government interacts with needy citizens in the United States. Rather than sending aid checks to families deemed financially eligible, agencies are now charged with assisting poor people to become self-sufficient through stable employment. To fulfill this new, ambitious mission, government officials recognize that they need help from civic institutions-businesses, nonprofits, and, especially, faith-based organizations (FBOs). Indeed, Congress encouraged collaboration with the faith community in particular by including the "charitable choice" provision in the federal welfare reform law.

Many believe that the faith community, with its grassroots character and wealth of human resources, is strategically positioned to provide intense, personally tailored assistance to struggling families and to transform distressed neighborhoods. Charitable choice opens up new possibilities for collaboration between government and FBOs, and has opened up a new dialogue about the effectiveness of faithbased social service and the constitutionality of church-state cooperation in serving the poor.

Charitable choice fundamentally aims to reconstitute the way government interacts with congregations and faith-based providers of social services. It creates a level playing field between faith-based social service organizations and secular groups in the competition for government contracts by insisting that if a state elects to involve any independent-sector providers in the delivery of social services, then it may not exclude some providers simply because of their religious character. Charitable choice's guidelines also protect the religious character of faith-based organizations that choose to accept governmental funding. FBOs retain authority over their mission and governing board, are allowed to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities, and may discriminate in their hiring practice on the basis of religion. Simultaneously, charitable choice guards the civil liberties of clients receiving services from government contractors. FBOs. must not use governmental funds for purposes of "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." They must not discriminate against a beneficiary on the basis of religion or require the beneficiary to participate in religious practices. And, if a beneficiary objects to receiving social services from a faith-based provider, under charitable choice that beneficiary has a right to obtain services from another provider.

Tracking Results

Welfare reform has engendered a growing tide of government-faith community collaboration. New cooperative relationships between government and the faith community that involve either financial contracts or formal nonfinancial collaboration currently operate in at least 23 states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin) and are in development in 8 more (Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia).

From mid-1998 through August 1999, I conducted a comprehensive search for new (i.e., post-1996 welfare reform) government-faith collaborations in nine states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin) and uncovered 125 examples. Though not an exact or exhaustive figure, 125 is probably the best available estimate; this number includes both those collaborations that emerged specifically as a result of charitable choice, and those that blossomed under the hospitable climate for such collaboration created more generally by welfare reform. These collaborative efforts range from highly formalized relationships involving direct financial contracting to nonfinancial relationships in which congregations and FBOs assist government welfare agencies by providing specific services (such as mentoring or life skills classes) to welfare recipients.

One of the most effective and creative examples of new collaboration is the partnership between Good Samaritan Ministries in Ottawa County, Michigan and the county's Family Independence Agency. This collaborative involves direct funding of "Good Sam," an FBO with over 20 years of experience in community ministry, to serve as a "strategic intermediary" connecting government and local churches. "Good Sam" is well known by Ottawa County welfare officials and well respected by area clergy. When Ottawa County was selected as a pilot site for the state's ambitious "Project Zero" initiative (aimed at getting every able-bodied welfare recipient into a job), officials invited Good Samaritan's director, Bill Raymond, to help design a comprehensive strategy. Eventually, that strategy included a key role for the faith community. Good Samaritan received funding from the county to launch a church-based mentoring program for Project Zero participants. In just a few months, Good Samaritan recruited and trained volunteers from over 50 churches (many of which had never partnered formally with government) and matched them with struggling families.

In recent months, other Michigan counties have replicated Ottawa County's approach, identifying an intermediary organization (e.g., the local council of churches, Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services) that could encourage individual congregations to participate in mentoring. This "strategic intermediary" approach (being employed outside of Michigan as well) gives public officials a means of mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to provide practical and emotional support to welfare recipients while avoiding the logistical challenge of forming numerous relationships with individual congregations. This approach is not the only form of new collaboration (others include direct funding of FBOs that themselves provide "hands-on" service to the needy, indirect funding mechanisms, and formal, nonfinancial collaboration) but is attractive because of its efficiency and the "arm's length" relationship it creates between government and individual churches.

The growth in church-state collaboration since welfare reform is significant for at least three reasons. First, while 125 new relationships may appear at first glance an unimpressive number, it in fact represents a significant amount of activity. This is because some initiatives, such as Texas's Family Pathfinders program and Mississippi's Faith and Families initiative, for example, involve several hundred congregations and FBOs. There are many other programs that I found that are counted as a single example of collaboration, but actually involve dozens of congregations. Additionally, twelve of the collaborations identified involve financial contracts of over $100,000 and engage the lives of scores of welfare recipients. All together, thousands of welfare recipients are benefiting from services now offered through FBOs and congregations working in tandem with local and state welfare agencies.

Second, probably the most striking observation from my nine-state study is the fact that over one-half of the collaborations represent cooperation between government agencies and either FBOs or congregations that were not previously engaged in formal church-state relationships. As a result of charitable choice, we are now seeing religious groups that, for the first time, are receiving government funds to underwrite their social services. In short, the traditional social services network is being broadened with the inclusion of "new players."

Third, stimulated by welfare reform, many of these new players have started providing social services they had not provided previously. Specifically, many have moved from "commodity-based benevolence" (operating food pantries and used clothing centers) to "relational" ministry (mentoring families going from welfare to work or providing intensive job and life skills classes). Indeed, while my research uncovered collaboration focused on a wide variety of social services (e.g" childcare, job training, transportation, substance abuse counseling/ rehabilitation, services for the homeless, English courses, parenting classes), the most common initiatives were mentoring and job training programs that involve much face-to-face contact between the individuals helped and the faith community volunteers and staff serving them.

The Question of Quality

While most government officials and faith community representatives interviewed were knowledgeable about welfare reform, and aware (at a general level) of the more hospitable climate the 1996 law created for church-state cooperation,. many were ignorant of the specific provisions of charitable choice. Outside of Texas and Wisconsin, most government officials had not taken any specific steps to reform their internal administrative procedures to comply with the charitable choice guidelines (and did not know of anyone else in the bureaucracy who had done so). Since charitable choice was crafted not only to make possible an increase in the quantity of government-faith community collaborations, but also to improve the quality of these relationships by protecting the religious character of the service organization and the civil liberties of the service recipient, this is unfortunate.

Nevertheless, despite the widespread ignorance about the details of charitable choice, the study uncovered almost no examples of FBOs who felt their religious expression had been" squelched" in their collaborative relationship with government. The closest thing to a complaint along these lines was the uncertainty voiced by two interviewees from FBOs who were not completely sure how "far they could go" in integrating spiritual ministry into their programs. These individuals expressed a desire for more clarity from their government partners regarding what they could, or could not, do. Also, out of the thousands of beneficiaries engaged in programs offered by FBOs collaborating with government, interviewees reported only two complaints by clients who felt uncomfortable with the religious organization from which they received help. In both cases-in accordance with the charitable choice guidelines-the client simply opted out of the faith-based program and enrolled in a similar program operated by a secular provider. In summary, in nearly all the examples of collaboration studied, what charitable choice seeks to accomplish is in fact being accomplished: the religious integrity of the FBOs working with government is being protected, and the civil liberties of program beneficiaries enrolled in faith-based programs are being respected.

The future, though, will be more secure on these two counts if charitable choice's detailed guidelines are increasingly used by both government and faith community representatives. Most of the new relationships being forged today have been crafted by individuals who have not used the charitable choice guidelines to shape the specific contours of their collaboration. That is, they are not introducing into their contracts or Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) the formal language of the charitable choice provisions. (The exceptions here are the agreements being forged in Wisconsin and Texas, which are taking the charitable choice guidelines into account.)

As mentioned above, this failure to "codify" charitable choice in these contracts has not led to serious problems with respect to the rights of FBOs or service beneficiaries. As government-faith collaborations continue to increase, though, it will be important for both parties to be more intentional in formalizing their working relationship according to the guidelines specified by charitable choice. Doing so will further minimize the likelihood of problems for either FBOs or clients.

Church/State: A "Nonissue" for Most

Despite the fact that many of the collaborations I reviewed involve FBOs new to formal collaboration, church-state concerns were reported as "nonissues" by both government and FBO/church staff far more often than not. The following were cited as the four most common reasons why.

  • The FBO representatives and the government staff had come to know and trust one another. They felt it unnecessary to specify on paper what the ministry could or could not do; they assumed that the ministry would be respectful and responsible and not" cross boundaries."
  • The church/FBO did not think it necessary to be more specific in the contract or MOU because they felt they had been straightforward about their identity. The idea was that government representatives and the potential program participants were well aware of the religious identity of the organization and its program. Since the clients' participation in their programs was voluntary, these FBOs / churches felt confident that they coyld "be religious" since clients were free not to participate in their programs.
  • An unofficial, "gentlemen's agreement" existed between the church/FBO and its government partner that the ministry would not address spiritual concerns unless the client initiated interest in such matters.
  • The FBO did not see itself as particularly religious and had little desire to do explicitly spiritual ministry.
  • Critics of charitable choice, worried about taxpayer dollars underwriting aggressive religious activities by faith-based social service providers, might conclude that this lack of attention to church-state questions means that clients' civil liberties are in danger. In fact, as noted earlier, there have been almost no complaints by clients about the services they receive from FBOs or churches that are working collaboratively with government. In the absence of interviews with many clients, we can only speculate about why there have been so few complaints.

    One possibility is that the FBOs are doing a sufficient job of informing potential program participants of their religious identity -- so participants do not find themselves surprised by the presence of some religious content or activities. Another possibility is that those clients who select to participate in faith-based programs do so because they are either people of faith themselves or hold the religious organizations in high esteem; thus, they are unlikely to lodge any protests. A third possibility is that the religious groups are doing a good job of being winsome, gentle, and unobtrusive in the way they articulate their faith or integrate spiritual enrichment into their social service programs. A fourth possibility is that the programs run by ostensibly religious organizations are, in fact, devoid of any spiritual content. Complaints from beneficiaries are also likely rare because in a considerable number of initiatives, the program offered was governed by a financial contract that emphasized the clients' civil liberties. These contracts usually included specific provisions prohibiting the FBO from refusing service delivery to clients on the basis of religion, forbidding required church attendance as a condition of receipt of service, and prohibiting proselytizing. These, in fact, are all provisions that are specifically required by charitable choice for contracting between government and faith-based organizations.

    That client complaints have been few and far between even in the absence of a vigorous enforcement of charitable choice's civil rights guidelines is welcome news. It does not, however, diminish the importance or responsibility of government officials increasing the use of charitable choice's guidelines as they shape new working relationships with FBOs. Fruitful collaboration between government and the faith community involves not only activities (and contract language) designed to secure the civil liberties of beneficiaries, but efforts to enable FBOs to operate their programs without compromising their religious identity. To the extent that contracts and MOUs contain provisions aimed at achieving the former, they must also include measures to accomplish the latter.

    Determining the Scope of Collaboration

    Certain parameters bounded the scope of this study. First, with respect to financial collaboration, I collected only information on financial relationships involving TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) funds or the Department of Labor's "Welfare-to-Work" funds. Charitable choice guidelines are binding on these two welfare funding streams. Second, the government-faith institution relationship had to involve a certain degree of formality; this study focused solely on examples of church-state collaboration that provided social services specifically for individuals affected by welfare reform (e.g., job training, welfare-to-work mentoring, transportation initiatives to help welfare recipients get to work, alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation programs offered to T ANF recipients, etc.). Third, only collaborative initiatives that had begun after the passage of national welfare reform in 1996 were examined. Thus, FBOs with long-standing financial relationships with government were included only if they held a post-1996 contract (and if the services provided under that contract were aimed specifically at individuals affected by welfare reform). Of the 125 examples of collaboration that fit within the parameters described above, 57 percent (71) involved churches and FBOs that had not previously cooperated in a formal capacity with government.

    In the future, it is likely that we will see more formal use of charitable choice for at least two reasons. First charitable choice is simply commanding much more attention now than it did in 1996 and 1997, when it was overshadowed by all the other sweeping changes inaugurated by federal welfare reform. Now that leading presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush have both publicly embraced charitable choice, the issue has gained a spot on the media's radar screen. Second, the interviewing process that this survey involved was itself an educational endeavor, in that in many instances the primary researcher had numerous occasions to explain to religious leaders the specific provisions of charitable choice. As the interviewees grasped the details of charitable choice, many became enthusiastic about incorporating its detailed guidelines into future contracts so as to solidify and clarify what they could and could not do as faith-based service providers. Most of the collaborations I studied were formed between mid1998 and the end of 1999. Since then, the pace has continued to pick up, and there is a discernable momentum of activity in crafting these new relationships. If the potential benefits of charitable choice are to be fully realized, government entities, religious organizations, and the nonprofit community must each do their part to advance the careful implementation of the legislation.


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