Public-Religious partnerships can be responsible

Michael Kessler writes in the Washington Post about the changes in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the direction of Joshua DuBois. Kessler says it is “refreshing to hear DuBois repeatedly speak of his office as seeking to create “responsible partnerships”.

Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He writes:

The usual concerns about the faith-based grants are the dangers that religious groups may proselytize while delivering social services. To be a “responsible” partner with government means that the faith-based organization creates a separate, non-profit corporation which receives the Federal grant and delivers the secular service, apart from the religious activities of the organization. There are many safeguards in place to achieve this goal, with perhaps some room for improvement.

One big question arises on the other side of the partnership. In promoting the grant-process to faith-based groups, the Office, DuBois, and the President himself have a responsibility to ensure that all faith-based organizations are treated equally. No favoritism should be shown to specific kinds of sectarian groups.

This favoritism was the focus of a taxpayer challenge during the Bush administration. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the government, alleging that representatives of the Office violated the Establishment Clause by organizing conferences designed to promote religious community groups over secular ones in the grant-procurement process. They sought to enjoin the Office from targeting religious groups and providing special assistance in a manner that was not provided to secular community groups. Inflaming this concern was the practice of targeting evangelical religious organizations, in particular. The challenge was not against the grants themselves, but about the conferences the President hosted for religious groups to help them apply for the grants.

The success of public partnership with religious agencies will hinge on balancing several needs at once. We need to ensure that the funds are spent on non-sectarian services. The President and the Office will need to assure that access to the grants is fair and without prejudice, so that every religious group can access funds equally, and no particular kind of religious organization is shown preferential treatment.

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