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Keeping the Faith? Groups Prove Effective, but Thorny Issues Persist

March 12, 2009 By:
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John J. DiIulio

As the economy worsens and the demand for social services increases, the faith-based community -- more than any other -- is providing the safety net and social services for people in need, according to local academic Ram Cnaan. Still, questions remain over the constitutionality and practicality of federal funding for such decidedly effective religious institutions.

The sticking point remains whether religious groups receiving such funding can use religion to discriminate in their hiring practices, something that President Barack Obama's administration has yet to weigh in on, to the chagrin of at least one national Jewish group.

These issues were thrashed out during a March 5 panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel that focused on the future of faith-based services and the implications of Obama's recent executive order reconstituting the White House's faith-based office.

The panel featured John J. DiIulio, the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who is also a Penn political scientist; Richard T. Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee; and Cnaan, chair of Penn's doctoral program in social welfare. Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz moderated the discussion.

During the program sponsored by AJCommittee in honor of its former chapter director Murray Friedman, Cnaan argued that nowhere else do congregations devote as much time and energy to serving the poor as in the United States. In many nations, society looks toward the government or the extended family to play that role.

So, he argued, anyone concerned about the poor should favor more government funding for religious groups -- though he, personally, would prefer the higher-taxes-equals-more-state-services model prevalent in much of Western Europe.

Of course, this issue, as well as the church-state issues it inherently raises, isn't exactly new. As far back as 1899, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the funding of a Catholic-run hospital by the District of Columbia.

According to a recent report prepared by the Brookings Institution, by the 1970s and '80s, federal courts had generally approved of funding for social services, but not to an explicitly religious enterprise. Funding was approved on a case-by-case basis and depended upon the intended use. During the panel discussion, Foltin said that, in essence, large organizations like Jewish federations could expect government funding during that period, while individual congregations were not encouraged to apply.

"Those were the basic parameters, but there were no laws saying that this is the way things worked," said Foltin.

Of course, the Bush administration sought to change that, and by doing so, clearly define its partnership with faith groups in early 2001 when it created the White House office.

These days, America can have the funding and the services, but with that comes lots of "tsuris," explained DiIulio.

For example, could a Catholic priest expect to be hired to run a Jewish organization? Should religion matter when it comes to the director of a drug-treatment program? Some religious organizations have argued that they can't serve their purpose if key employees don't subscribe to the doctrine.

But he also noted that the vast majority of religious groups serving disadvantaged communities do not inherently face such quandaries, and the government needs to find a way to better support their work. This can happen before it needs to address the remaining actors -- a small minority -- in the faith-based community where church-state lines often become quite blurry.

DiIulio also added that under Bush, the office did not live up to its potential. He claimed that at times, it lacked transparency and was repeatedly accused of being politicized.

Hiring still remains the thorniest issue; and, in July, Obama said that he'd continue the White House office, but reverse this controversial element of Bush's policy. But the Feb. 5 executive order establishing the new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- along with a 25-member advisory council -- made no mention of hiring practices and, in fact, gave few clues as to how the new office will operate.

The Anti-Defamation League, for one, followed suit with a critical letter to the White House.

"We are deeply troubled by the prospect that taxpayer money will likely fund religious discrimination in employment decisions involving the people who deliver faith-based social services," wrote Glen S. Lewy, ADL national chair, and Abraham Foxman, ADL national director.

But other groups have withheld public judgment, and seem content to give the administration time to figure how to deal with this sensitive issue.

After the program, Foltin noted that AJCommittee is still opposed to the notion of sanctioning discrimination in hiring, but recognized that the Jewish community will have to take part in the dialogue about where lines should be drawn.

"It was easier for us when we knew what we were against ... we didn't like what was being proposed and put forward by President Bush," said Foltin. "Now, we see President Obama is building something from the ground up, and it gets much harder because we have to be proscriptive. We have to say what it should look like." 

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