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Charitable Choice Is Progressive Social Policy Promoting the Public Trust

By Stanley W. Carlson-Thies and John J. DiIulio Jr.
02.24.03

Without a doubt, throughout America’s rural areas and urban centers, houses of worship and religious nonprofits are vital elements of our social safety net. A majority of the American public trusts faith-based organizations as sources of community service and favors more government support for their civic good works. And many welfare officials are looking to religious charities as often the only trusted beacons of hope in distressed inner cities.

If we want to strengthen our nation’s commitment to helping the least, the last and the lost, this is the direction we must go. Government must expand its collaboration with neglected neighborhood healers, both sacred and secular. Officials should welcome these social entrepreneurs as partners, not resent them as rivals. As President Bush proposes, we need tax changes to spark an outpouring of private charitable giving. And we must also reform federal policy to ensure that community-serving ministries have a fair chance to win government support to expand their successful efforts.

A renewed social policy must promote results, respect pluralism, ensure equal opportunity for all helpers and honor constitutional church-state requirements. That’s why we support charitable choice. Charitable choice is neither a strategy for government to dump welfare caseloads on the doorsteps of churches nor a plan to dump government funds into church offering plates. It is, in our view, a carefully crafted framework that expands options for needy Americans, safeguards the autonomy of faith-based groups, protects constitutional values and promotes the public trust.

Charitable choice does not codify government favoritism toward religion but curbs widespread government bias against many religious poverty-fighting charities. There is no pot of money set aside for favored religious groups. Rather, eligibility criteria that excluded some groups as “too religious” are changed to prize performance, not process, so that all providers — Methodist, Muslim, Mormon or good people of no faith at all — can seek federal support to serve their needy neighbors. If a faith-based provider wins funding, it will be because it provides effective and respectful services and meets all accountability standards.

Charitable choice forbids diverting government money to pay for inherently religious activities like sectarian worship, preaching or proselytizing. All recipients must be served without discrimination and without compulsory religious observance. And government must ensure an equivalent alternative service if a client objects to a faith-based provider.

Charitable choice also retains the well-established right of religious organizations to hire staff of similar faith. Some call this government-funded job discrimination and an attack on civil rights. In fact, this long-standing right is itself a cornerstone civil rights protection enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not a violation of it. Under charitable choice the government funds the best providers it can find, some of whom — as protected by settled civil rights law and the courts — consider religion when staffing in order to preserve their faith-driven community-service mission.

Congress has adopted charitable choice four separate times since 1996, and always by overwhelming bipartisan majorities. It is a careful, compassionate and constitutional approach to expanding government’s ability to partner with community-serving groups, whether religious or not, that achieve civic purposes. If government’s previous poverty-fighting strategies had boasted great results, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. President Bush is determined to make U.S. social policy more effective. We must give faith-based groups a fair chance to compete, and that means respecting their religious character.

We see charitable choice as a carefully tailored way to deliver critical services to needy children, youth, and families. To rally America’s armies of compassion, we must herald and support the quiet heroes who heal broken lives and distressed neighborhoods one act of kindness at a time.

Stanley W. Carlson-Thies is associate director of the Cabinet Center on Affairs of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the White House.

John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.


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