GAO: Few Faith-Based Safeguards

A blandly-worded Government Accountability Office report reveals almost no governmental oversight of the faith-based initiative,” or safeguards against religious discrimination.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken and won more challenges of this initiative than any other organization.

Requested by U.S. Reps. George Miller and Pete Stark, D-Calif., the GAO report on the monitoring and performance of the “faith-based and community initiatives” was issued on July 18.

“In our view, creating a level playing field for FBOs [faith-based organizations] does not mean that agencies should be relieved of their oversight responsibilities relating to the equal treatment regulations,” the GAO wrote in its strongest conclusion.

Its primary recommendation is that agencies include information in grant documents on “safeguards.”

The limited study of ten grant programs in five federal agencies (the Departments of Education; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Justice; and Labor) found only four grant programs provided grantees a statement on the rights of clients not to be discriminated against based on religion. The right not to be proselytized was not even mentioned in the report.

The report implied no widespread diversion of government money to religious activities, but in fact was so limited in scope it could not justify that conclusion.

Three of the programs did not provide grantees with a written advisory against using direct federal funds for inherently religious activities.

The GAO criticized the fact that only three of ten grant programs provided information on permissible hiring practices to the faith-based grantees–in other words, they failed to tell grantees they usually may discriminate in hiring.

Under Bush’s faith-based initiative, FBOs may retain religious icons and symbols where they provide federally-funded services, and “generally are not prohibited by federal law from making employment decisions based on religious grounds . . . However, they are not permitted to provide ‘inherently religious’ activities such as prayer or worship with direct federal funds or discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion.”

The GAO report noted widespread confusion over what constitutes an “inherently religious” program, which the agencies have “declined to clarify.”

It concluded: “We found instances where FBOs did not appear to understand the nuances associated with the equal treatment rule that prohibits FBOs from engaging in inherently religious activities while providing services supported with direct federal funds.”

Almost no agencies have completed evaluations of their pilot FBO programs. In fact, of the 15 pilot programs underway in the five agencies studied, only one evaluation has even been completed. Six have not been started and two are not intending to do an evaluation, even though required by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

In the one evaluated pilot program, Clergy Against Senior Exploitation in Denver, the evaluation was based on self-reporting by participants.

Government agencies are not required to monitor FBOs differently than secular organizations.

The GAO report noted special concern over prison programs. For instance, Labor’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative limits eligibility to apply for grants to religious programs.

“Officials at Justice told us that they believe FBOs in the Community Corrections Contracting program are exempt from the prohibition on providing inherently religious activities,” the report states.

Since fiscal year 2002, the faith-based offices in five federal agencies have spent more than $24 million on administrative activities. Since 2001, these agencies have awarded more than $500 million to train and provide technical assistance to FBOs (and community groups) to apply for funding.

The report noted that the OMB and the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives “assess progress” by the Cabinets in funding faith-based offices. The Foundation is currently suing the OMB, contending its secretive color-coded grading system reveals governmental preference toward funding of religious groups.

The GAO recommended that the OMB “ensure that all agencies with initiative-related centers include information on the safeguards in grant documents and in monitoring guidelines, improve data on grants awarded to FBOs, and develop a plan for reporting on progress toward the initiative’s long-term goals.”

The GAO also recommended that the Attorney General “clarify the exception in the Justice’s equal treatment regulations” for its correctional programs. The Foundation has filed a federal lawsuit against faith-based federal prison ministries.

The GAO recommended that “OMB work with agencies to improve how federal agencies identify which organizations are faith-based.”

The OMB argued in writing over implementation of several recommendations, as did the Cabinet agencies, resulting in milder final recommendations by the GAO.

The GAO noted that “agencies stated they found no basis for requiring additional assurances or greater oversight and monitoring of FBOs.” The OMB does not require site visits.

Only groups receiving $500,000 or more in federal awards in a fiscal year are required to have a single audit, and constitutional safeguards are not part of the audit.

The GAO additionally visited 26 FBOs, and found that half of them provided voluntary religious activities, such as prayer or worship. Four of these 13 FBOs “did not separate in time or location some religious activities from federally funded program services,” for instance, praying with clients, which is illegal.

One official told the GAO he began each program session, which involved children, “with a nonsectarian prayer that at times included a brief reading from the bible.”

The GAO noted that the “next phase” of the federal FBOs will “focus on encouraging the establishment of state and local government partnerships with faith-based and community organizations.”

Most federal social service funds are distributed and administered at the state and local levels. Thirty-two states now have state offices of liaisons for FBOs. Pres. Bush proposes $323 million in “faith” funds in his 2007 budget–a 36% increase from fiscal year 2006. He proposes an increase for the Compassion Capital Fund from $64 million to $100 million, and an increase in the Prisoner Reentry Initiative funding from $26 million to $60 million.

Freedom From Religion Foundation