PZ fails to read the fine print

In an otherwise correct piece about the disappointing speech Obama gave about "faith-based" initiatives, PZ concludes by writing:

End the faith-based initiatives. The government should only be supporting programs that work — at least, in my dreams of an efficient administration, anyway.

The problem is, Obama's plan (full version in PDF) states that he will "Hold Recipients Responsible by conducting rigorous performance evaluation, researching what works well and disseminating best practices," and furthermore, groups receiving funds "Must prove their efficacy and be judged based on program effectiveness. They will be expected to demonstrate proven program outcomes to continue to receive funding. Obama will fund programs that work and end funding for programs that do not – whether they are large or small, well-established or new, faith-based or otherwise."

I see no reason why Obama couldn't do all of this within the framework laid out by Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: eliminate the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and let religious groups apply for funds the same way everyone else does. Make it clear that programs receiving federal funds (quoting the Obama plan):Cannot use federal funds to proselytize or provide religious sectarian instruction, Cannot discriminate against nonmembers in providing services. They must remain open to all and cannot practice religious discrimination against the populations they serve, Must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs, and Can only use taxpayer dollars on secular programs and initiatives.

Those rules are just good policy, and apply equally to a church group providing shelter for the homeless as it would to a city agency or secular nonprofit doing the same work. The requirement that grantees show their programs are effective is sensible, and if it isn't already part of standard procedure for such grants, it should be.

Churches do a lot of good things for communities, and there's no reason that such secular outreach shouldn't be able to get federal funds (assuming it isn't used for proselytizing and that it doesn't discriminate). A few weekends back I went to a gospel church in San Francisco which, along with a soup kitchen and homeless shelter, has raised funds to construct low-income housing, which will be administered in a way that will help homeless people get off the streets, establish an address and get their lives back together. More secular groups should do the same work, but there's no point in withholding federal support to such projects. Getting folks off the street like that will save lives and measurably improve a lot of people's standard of living.

Furthermore, having those federal funds available, but with clear anti-discrimination/anti-proselytization strings attached, will ensure that the benefits of such programs cannot be skewed along awkward lines. Churches which want to impose their beliefs on others, or restrict their outreach only to people willing to accept their beliefs, will get no federal assistance, and will, on average, not be as effective as those programs run by churches that know it's better to show than to tell. Many groups talk a big talk about generosity and the importance of following the often radically redistributionist ideas of the New Testament, but are more interested in putting tracts in hands than food in hungry mouths. Obama's program will be as good a way as any to separate the wheat from the chaff.

More like this

First, there was this awful news about Obama's support of "faith-based programs": Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is announcing plans to expand President Bush's program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and -- in a move…
(Note Addendum before commenting, please.) Is there any candidate who still supports the separation of church and state anymore? Heck, even Barack Obama seems to be pandering to the religious base these days: CHICAGO -- Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack…
By way of a link from Pam's House Blend to this post, I came across a really good question about funding faith-based initiatives (bold original): Senator Obama, if a religious institution proselytizes with one hand, and receives federal money with the other hand, how can you seriously posit that…
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Ok, you really have confused me. You seem to be saying PZ is wrong, but suggest that Obama would be correct in following Rev Lynn's idea of getting rid of the OFCI and letting everyone, secular or not, have to follow the same rules to get federal funding.

This is different how? Seriously - how is this different than what PZ said?

You quote PZ with "End the faith-based Initiatives" - which you agree with.

You quote him, again, with the gov't "should only be supporting programs that work", which you agree with.

So why start off with the phrase "In an otherwise correct piece"?

Earlier this year I read Barry Lynn's Piety And Politics and he describes several effective social programs that are run by religious organizations. It's my perception those people would run the same programs if they were atheists or zebras. There are religious people who just run good social programs. Maybe PZ could put some ice on that knee...

Couldn't agree more. The only thing that makes me nervous is this: If these groups get money from the government to fund something like a soup kitchen, do they then re-direct other funds to proselytizing activities, since they now have an alternate source of funding for the food? If that's the case, I have concerns, but no clear solutions. I personally give money to a Catholic program in India, but I know that the money goes directly to education and housing, and if my money wasn't there, the program wouldn't be either, so I have no problem with it.

Government contribution to "Faith Based Programs" is unconstitutional. A "Constitutional Lawyer," Barack Obama knows this, but chooses to throw the Constition under the bus!

I will not vote for a politician who advocates this initiative. Ralph Nader? What is his position??

I tasted the cool aid but didn't swallow.

Sign me,
Former Obama believer!

By Glenn, Phoenix, AZ (not verified) on 01 Jul 2008 #permalink

Glenn, I think you are flat wrong about whether this is constitutional.

The government, under current constitutional law, can not fund (in any way) a group that undertakes religious discrimination. It can't fund groups that are trying to spread a particular religion. As such most religious groups in the nation can't qualify for funding (not saying that they didn't, just that such funds should have been illegal).

However, these 'faith based' groups are actually separate bodies from the actual churches and religious groups they are associated with. Funding them directly, as the initiative does, means that only the behaviour and practices of those smaller groups matters, not the supporting religious group behind them.

While the infinitives are called faith based, the groups themselves aren't. They might be supported by a church and gather most of their volunteers and funding from a particular religious group, but in their practices they are no different from any secular charity. Faith based is a poor name, chosen for the warm fuzzies and an inclusive (religiously) image. More accurate would be religion sponsored. Like the Red Cross/Crescent or Christian Aid or any of a million other religious based charities.

If they want to qualify for federal funds, they need to abide by federal rules on discrimination and religious practice. That must remove those groups that everyone complains about while leaving funding in the hands of those who actually do good work with it, yet are normally ignored.

If I went out tomorrow and started a charity called Atheist Aid, but was very clear I didn't discriminate by viewpoint or religion in my hiring or work practices, what would the difference be between my charity and Christian Aid (other than the millions in funding)? Infact, Christian Aid, despite being started by the state funded church here in the UK and receiving a vast amount of funding directly from churches still, has in their equal opportunities statement;
It is the aim of Christian Aid to ensure that no job applicant or employee receives less favourable treatment on the grounds of sex, race, colour, religion, marital status, sexuality, age or disability, and is not placed at a disadvantage by conditions or requirements that cannot be shown to be justifiable.

By Paul Schofield (not verified) on 01 Jul 2008 #permalink

Government contribution to "Faith Based Programs" is unconstitutional. A "Constitutional Lawyer," Barack Obama knows this, but chooses to throw the Constition under the bus!

Few people hate FBI more than me, but this is flat out wrong. The major problem with the way the FBI has been funded under the Shrub administration is that oversight was pretty much thrown out the window, and the funding was given as basically discretionary. That was unconstitutional!

If the actual FBI process (as created under Clinton) is followed, it at least is consttutional. If you download the government pdf on the guidelines for applying for FBI funding, there are rather strict controls on what one can do with the funds, and the accountability one has to provide to the government of where those funds go (as well as the usual non-discriminatory hiring practices). The major beef with these programs (unless they changed it, which I seriously doubt) is that they still allow discriminatory hiring, but it's only supposed to be on the basis of belief or not.

I'd just as soon scrap it too, and simply make a blanket secular charity program that anyone can apply to if they meet the guidelines.

Badger: PZ justifies his call for an end of funding for FBIs by saying that "The government should only be supporting programs that work at least, in my dreams of an efficient administration, anyway." Which is true, but doesn't argue for ending the funding. Obama's plan calls for funds only to be given to programs that work anyway, so PZ is raising a red herring.

I'd prefer to see FBIs treated like any other charitable group, but I think that the safeguards Obama is describing make the program acceptable (but not ideal). I don't know whether PZ would agree if he understood that grantees would "be expected to demonstrate proven program outcomes to continue to receive funding." He seems to believe that there are no such safeguards, and rests his opposition on that basis. That's why I think PZ is wrong. Not in his opinions, but in his statements about Obama's plan.

Josh - ok - after rereading it, and your comments, several times, I think I understand. Having been in the military, working with government employess and now working for the state with a school district, I have seen very little of what could be called oversight. Especially seeing the extreme lack of oversight in the last few years. Even if Obama can come up with his plan, and have it approved, and clean up the DOJ (for all the prosecutions it will need to do), add potentially thousands of inspectors (or adding them at the state level somehow - I'm just pulling a number out of my posterior opening here), keeping them from being discriminatory....sorry, I'm not optimistic that it can work. We can't even keep churches from turning political, or corporations flaunting their lawbreaking and not even getting a slap on the wrist. The damage that has been done (to an already sad government) will take a long time to fix, and I don't see Obama with a magic wand. He can talk the talk, but I am skeptical that he can walk the walk. He'll do better than McBush, but he's no savior. So, I am skeptical that his Office will be any major change. I'd love to be wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.