Implementing "Charitable Choice" Transcending the separation between church and state

by Amy Sherman

Philanthropy, Jan/Feb, 1999

Rev. James Heurich recalls being hounded by the demons of drug and alcohol addiction before "getting clean" 28 years ago. In late 1995, though, Heurich was being harassed by a different antagonist: the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Heurich was running the San Antonio chapter of Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug rehabilitation ministry with affiliates in 130 communities, and the Commission was trying to shut him down. The Commission’s licensing rules require that treatment facilities hire only credentialed chemical dependency counselors. Teen Challenge doesn’t. It runs its rehab programs with "homegrown" leaders, former addicts who’ve transformed their lives through conversion to Christianity.

Teen Challenge’s success rates—which hover between 70 and 86 percent compared to the single-digit rates seen by more expensive, secular programs—apparently made no difference to John D. Cooke, the Commission’s assistant deputy director. "Outcomes and outputs are not an issue for us," he told reporters. "If they want to call it treatment, then state law says they must be licensed."

Six months later, Heurich was still in business, thanks mainly to timely intervention by Texas Governor George W. Bush. The Bush Administration reined in the Commission and established a task force, composed of state officials and representatives from faith-based social services agencies, to propose new licensing procedures that would permit religious groups to operate with the state’s blessing.

Rev. Heurich isn’t the only Good Samaritan who’s gotten tangled up in state regulations. Mary Jackson is a cheerfully maternal, middle-aged black woman whom the Detroit News called "the Mother Teresa" of the Smith Homes, a crime-ridden inner-city housing project. She moved into the projects 14 years ago to minister to unsupervised children and harried, hopeless single moms on welfare. For over a decade, she tried to get the city housing authorities to let her use the complex’s community center for her Bible club and recreational programs. "They have so much red tape about using this facility," she fumed during my visit. "Most of the time it stands there closed and locked with nothing going on." Jackson has been told that the dictates of church-state separation prohibit her from using the facility for a religious program.

These hog-tied Good Samaritans are not alone. Add to their stories the depressing anecdotes from faith-based community groups that accepted government funding only to end up with less personal, and more secular, programs. REACH, Inc. started in 1986 as the community development arm of the 12th Street Missionary Baptist Church in inner-city Detroit. It offers daycare and job training and rehabilitates abandoned properties. In the early 1990s, REACH accepted grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in the process, according to long-time staffer Linda Smith, lost its spiritual edge. "Part of the criticism of us now is that we’re too professional, too polished, that we can’t relate to the things that [local residents] are going through," Smith reports. "We don’t talk about the spiritual needs at all. When we worked out of the church, I knew every day, without a doubt, why I was there." Now, she sighs, "some days I come to work and people come in and I feel like I can’t help them because they need more than to just talk about putting them in a house. It’s a struggle for me."

Charitable Choice

Concern over the problems religious social service providers have encountered in financial and non-financial relationships with government, as well as the realization that welfare reform wouldn’t work without invigorated efforts by the faith community, prompted Senator John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri, to incorporate explicit protections for religious groups into the landmark 1996 federal welfare reform law. "One of my goals in proposing the ‘Charitable Choice’ provision was to encourage faith-based organizations to expand their involvement in the welfare reform effort by providing assurances that their religious integrity would be protected," Ashcroft explains. Under Charitable Choice, religious groups accepting government money are permitted to maintain control of the definition of their religious mission, appoint their governing board without state interference, preserve a religious atmosphere in their facilities, and, most importantly, discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring practices.

Unmistakably, church-state partnerships in serving the poor are on the rise. Even before federal reform, Mississippi launched its ambitious "Faith and Families" initiative. Aimed at fostering mentoring relationships between congregations and individuals making the transition from welfare to work, the program now involves more than 850 churches. Texas copied this idea and has forged some 431 mentoring relationships through its Family Pathfinders initiative. Local government agencies in numerous cities—among them, San Diego, Minneapolis, Montgomery, Seattle, and Annapolis—are partnering with churches in new efforts to provide job readiness training, daycare, transportation, and mentoring to welfare recipients.

Charlotte, North Carolina has hired an African-American minister, Rev. Ralph Williamson, to mobilize the churches. Social Service departments in Trenton, New Jersey and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have designated special staff members to undertake similar efforts. Interviews with government staffers involved in such work suggest that welfare reform generally, rather than Charitable Choice specifically, has motivated this new assertiveness in reaching out to the faith community. Nonetheless, agency officials like Carolyn Rawls of the Montgomery Department of Human Resources agree that Charitable Choice facilitates their efforts since it assuages some of the religious leaders’ concerns about government collaboration.

Meanwhile, key organizations in the faith community are also encouraging congregations to respond to the needs raised by welfare reform. The National Association of Evangelicals (a coalition of predominantly moderate and conservative churches) and the Call for Renewal (a network of more liberal churches) have both sponsored conferences and publicized the need for people of faith to get involved. Articles calling upon the churches to increase substantially their outreach among the poor have appeared in most major Christian publications, and membership in the Christian Community Development Association (a network of primarily urban, faith-based social service providers) continues to grow, from 37 groups in 1989 to over 350 today. Additionally, several faith-based organizations have joined together to establish a new web site, called "Churches at Work," ( that will serve as an information clearinghouse about church-based efforts to serve needy families.

Charitable Choice will certainly help alleviate religious groups’ misgivings about state collaboration. But churches are also looking for a sympathetic attitude on the part of their government counterparts; an attitude that appreciates the unique role churches can play in offering emotional support and spiritual counsel to economically distressed families. They’ve found that appreciation in a couple of places—at least in Mississippi and Michigan. "God, not government, will be the savior of welfare recipients," said Mississippi’s governor Kirk Fordice at the outset of the Faith and Families initiative. He and Mississippi Department of Human Services director Donald Taylor say they want churches to wield moral authority and cultivate traditional values among welfare recipients in order to transform a "culture of dependency." "The problem is not material poverty, it is behavioral poverty," argues Taylor. The churches involved in Faith and Families, adds Fordice, "instill a sense of personal responsibility and self-worth in participants." Gerald Miller, former state director of social services in Michigan, eagerly pursued partnerships with churches during his tenure. "I’ve always felt that a little faith-based values never hurt anybody," Miller told The Wall Street Journal.

Faith Works

This sympathetic attitude appears well-founded, since connecting with God has been a key component in so many welfare-to-work success stories. Sheila Anderson credits God for healing her from crack addiction. Formerly a resident of Gilpin Court—Richmond’s largest public housing project—the 37-year-old Anderson recalls her former career as a "toss-up," selling her body in the back of abandoned cars for the price of a rock of crack. With the help of mentors provided by the faith-based group, Strategies to Elevate People (STEP), this sixth grade drop-out has now completed her high school education and graduated from STEP’s intensive job training program. She’s also secured full-time employment, left behind the welfare rolls, bought a house, and become a pillar of her church. She likes to talk to incoming STEP students when they start the job readiness program. "I tell them if they’re looking to be changed, this is the right place. Because not only are they going to teach you the educational thing, but they are going to teach you about Jesus. And we need Jesus, if you’re like me and you’ve tried just about everything else and nothing’s worked."

Jennifer Lockett, a Faith and Families participant who was mentored by members of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Greenville, also reports changes in her attitude and behavior. Through the pastor’s counsel, Lockett decided she was too "carnally-minded" and that this was negatively affecting her home life. "I want my children to see mama doing right," Lockett says. With the church’s help, she enrolled in a nurses’ training program and landed a full-time job with benefits at the Greenville Clinic, a private medical facility. She’s been there nearly two years and has received two pay raises—and she’s very active in her church.

Wendy Bunker, a 26-year-old single mom, says her involvement in Maryland’s Community-Directed Assistance Program (C-DAP) helped her return to her religious roots as well as get off of welfare. Through C-DAP (an initiative of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services), Bunker was matched with a mentoring team from Asbury United Methodist Church in Annapolis. "This has had a lot to do with my faith getting built back up.... My life had gone all to pot [when] I’d tried to take things on my own," she explains. "I ended up getting pregnant twice and just falling back in whatever I did. Once I got into this program, into pastoral counseling, started being with other Christians and asking God for guidance, then my life starting getting back in order." Through C-DAP, Bunker secured a secretarial position and enrolled her children in Asbury’s preschool.

Anecdotal evidence like this (and a host of similar stories from welfare recipients in cities from Birmingham to Phoenix) points out the utility of religion, and helps to explain the current enthusiasm among politicians—and even amongst the media—for faith-based social programs. "Show me a program that helps people to change their lives (as opposed to merely feeding their physical hunger) and I’ll show you a program with a strong element of the spiritual," writes William Raspberry in the Washington Post.

Now policy think-tanks are joining the discussion. The New York-based Manhattan Institute’s "Jeremiah Project," led by criminologist John DiIulio Jr., is conducting multi-year empirical studies of the efficacy of faith-based programs in decreasing drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, joblessness, youth violence, and illiteracy. The Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation touts research by Harvard economist Richard Freeman showing that youth involved in church are 50 percent less likely to drop out of school, commit a crime, or experience an unwanted pregnancy. Youth crime statistics from inner-city Boston add further support to Freeman’s findings. And, as noted earlier, studies demonstrate that Teen Challenge’s success rates in curing substance abusers are seven to eight times higher than those of secular drug rehabilitation programs. The anecdotal and (admittedly limited) empirical evidence is not conclusive, but lends credibility to today’s popular notion that faith works.

Seeking Comparative Advantage

A more difficult question is why faith works. What is it about religiously-based social services that facilitates lasting personal transformation? For Ivia Wheeler, a divorced mother of five, strength to change came from the emotional support and love she received from staff at the faith-based Hope Makers Jobs Partnership in Minneapolis. Wheeler confronted two huge barriers to employment: paralyzing depression over the death of two sons in a tragic drowning accident and physical abuse by her boyfriend. Hope Makers staff met with Wheeler regularly and were available by phone when Wheeler needed to talk or cry. Wheeler says she always felt "lifted up" after the group’s job readiness classes. Wheeler has left her boyfriend and begun to move off of public assistance. Upon her graduation, Hope Makers staff linked Wheeler with a temporary agency and she now has a permanent part-time clerical position.

Former alcoholic Ora Stinson also reports the importance of the "community of caring" she became enmeshed in through the Center for Urban Missions, the outreach ministry of Birmingham, Alabama’s New City Fellowship church. While a resident at the Metropolitan Gardens public housing project, the 42-year-old Stinson joined the Center’s literacy class and Bible study. She says her newfound friends didn’t give up on her when she’d backslide and go out partying. Urban Missions gave her a part-time job in the neighborhood, and later helped her locate full-time work. Over the last several years, Stinson has quit drinking, taken on two jobs, gotten off welfare, and moved into a ranch home in a middle-class neighborhood fifteen minutes’ drive from Metropolitan Gardens. She says she’s discovered that "Jesus is the Man who can take you far. God can take a little bit of nothin’ and make something big out of it."

Sheila Anderson attributes her transformation to the "spiritual power" unleashed in her life through her newfound relationship with God. Though she was unable to go "cold turkey," immediately following her conversion, Anderson’s interest in crack waned. Then, when she made the decision to quit, she resisted temptations by praying. For Wendy Bunker, the key to change came in the wholesome lifestyle modeled by caring church members who personally invested in her life. For Jennifer Lockett, straightforward Biblical instruction was decisive. When Covenant Presbyterian Church pastor Jim Holland studied the scriptures with Lockett, showing her what God had to say about sex, work, money, marriage, child-rearing, and other practical subjects, she changed her behavior to conform to the Biblical standard.

Most likely, faith-based groups’ success is attributable to all these factors: clear moral teaching; personalized, loving, face-to-face assistance; dependable emotional support over the long haul and the sense of connectedness this engenders; and the experience of a personal relationship with a loving, listening, forgiving God that strengthens the individual’s confidence and infuses new hope. Logically, if by partnering with the government, faith-based groups diminish their ability to provide these critical elements, then the state’s "help" will have done more harm than good. This is the concern of Charitable Choice’s lukewarm supporters, such as Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky fears that the direct funding of faith-based groups via contracts could dilute religious groups’ unique characteristics. He recommends alternative funding vehicles, such as vouchers or charity tax credits, that maintain a more distant relationship between church and state.

To Bridge or Not to Bridge

If Olasky is correct that the faith community should keep government at arm’s length, then perhaps the most strategic use of Charitable Choice lies in funding faith-based intermediary organizations that could bridge the gap between individual congregations and government agencies. This has already been done with great success in Ottawa County, Michigan, the first locality in America to put every able-bodied welfare recipient to work.

When Michigan’s welfare reform program, "Project Zero," began, Ottawa County welfare officials already had a positive relationship with Good Samaritan Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit with connections to many local churches. As a result, they approached the ministry about a partnership. Good Samaritan would receive a one-year, $99,000 contract from the state to mobilize and train local churches to provide mentor teams for willing welfare recipients. The county welfare office would screen welfare clients and refer them to Good Samaritan. In turn, the ministry’s staff would review the cases and coordinate matches between clients and churches. Most of the $99,000 paid for new staff, as well as various administrative costs. A modest amount was set aside in an emergency benevolence fund that mentor teams could access on behalf of the individuals with whom they were working (to cover unexpected car repairs or medical bills, for example). Churches and mentors received no state funds. The partnership proved so successful that Good Samaritan was recently awarded another $100,000 contract.

The Ottawa County model is worth replicating for several reasons. First, government officials’ eagerness to solicit volunteer help from churches doesn’t necessarily translate into practical knowledge about church recruitment. Because government officials often lack personal relationships in the faith community—and may be viewed warily by religious leaders—officials have had limited success in partnering with churches. Bobbie Neff, a social worker with the San Diego Department of Social Services, says it took her over 18 months to gather 18 churches to staff an information desk where welfare recipients could learn about resources offered by the faith community. In Anne Arundel County, Social Services staff are responsible for recruiting churches into the C-DAP initiative. After three years, only 25 churches have participated. By contrast, Good Samaritan Ministries mobilized over 50 churches within a few months. Good Samaritan personnel knew the faith community, had longstanding working relationships with dozens of churches, and enjoyed credibility in the eyes of clergy.

A faith-based intermediary not only facilitates greater church participation, it also strengthens the quality of service welfare recipients receive. "Plenty of churches want to help," says Good Samaritan’s former executive director, Bill Raymond, "but they need training in how to help effectively." Studies of church-based welfare-to-work mentoring initiatives indicate that churches that provide structure to the mentoring relationship, and train the mentors in listening and problem-solving skills, goal-setting, and cross-cultural communication, fare better than churches that simply tell members to "befriend" the welfare recipient. Good Samaritan produced a practical handbook on mentoring for use by participating congregations and has assigned a staff member to provide ongoing support to church volunteers.

An intermediary also greatly simplifies the tasks of communication and evaluation. Ottawa County officials didn’t have to deal with some 50 churches; any information they needed on the mentoring effort could be supplied by Good Samaritan staff. And since the ministry was responsible for producing progress reports for the county, it helped mentor teams design record-keeping systems to monitor their progress and hold clients accountable.

If the demands on Bill Raymond’s time are an accurate barometer, there appears to be a growing appreciation for the role of intermediary organizations among both the government and the faith community. Raymond left Good Samaritan a few months ago to start a consulting business, Faith Works, to help other communities replicate the Project Zero model. He’s had over 200 requests for information and is in discussions with government and church officials in 15 cities.

Coming Full Circle

Charitable Choice is not without opposition. Predictable detractors include the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Julie Seagal, legislative counsel for Americans United, claims Charitable Choice "turns churches into arms of the government. Any cult could contract for funds, or tie the government up in court if they think they are rejected for their religious beliefs. Witches? People like David Koresh? Whatever you can imagine can happen, can happen."

Baylor University law professor Derek Davis, who edits the Journal of Church and State, has more nuanced criticisms. "Religion is robust in America because the government does not support it," Davis argues. Moreover, he’s concerned that Charitable Choice violates previous Supreme Court rulings that "pervasively sectarian" organizations should not get public money. University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck disagrees. "It is the poor who are the intended beneficiaries of the funding," Esbeck says. "The government’s purpose is not to aid or sponsor the service providers, but to use voluntary sector providers to better serve the needy." Thus, service providers should be selected "only with regard to which providers can best deliver the contract services—religion is neither favored nor disfavored." The issue, Esbeck contends, should be focused on "how contract monies are actually spent, rather than on whether a provider of social services is religious in character."

Congressional supporters of Charitable Choice aren’t waiting for a definitive resolution to the constitutional debate. Republican Representatives James Talent (of Missouri) and J. C. Watts (of Oklahoma) have incorporated Charitable Choice-type language in their "Community Renewal Project" bill. Senator Ashcroft is pushing legislation that expands the Charitable Choice protections to cover most federally-funded social services (currently, only partnerships funded from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant are covered). For these legislators, there’s no question that churches are a vital part of the answer to America’s social ills.

Others may reluctantly agree that churches can "deliver the social goods," comments Heidi Rolland Unruh, "but they don’t like the packaging." Unruh, whose "Congregations, Communities, and Leadership Development" project is studying 15 churches in the greater Philadelphia area, believes many churches won’t participate in efforts to make welfare reform work if they’re forced to separate their spiritual and temporal assistance. If Charitable Choice becomes more widely recognized, understood, and implemented, faith groups may be able to avoid having to make that choice. And that could stimulate a renaissance of outreach activities rooted in the Church, where much of modern social welfare found its start. As Rev. Ralph Williamson from Charlotte says, "I think we’ve come full circle."


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