Federal rules on faith-based organizations still flawed

New federal rules for faith-based organizations still leave a lot to be desired.

Nine federal agencies finalized rules on March 31 to clarify the role faith-based organizations may play in federally funded social welfare programs. The new rules make some strides in preventing such organizations from promoting religion with taxpayer funds, but also leave some important problems unsolved.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken the national lead in opposing President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative since its ill-conceived inception. When the recently finalized rules were proposed last fall, FFRF provided formal comments to all nine of the agencies involved.

The new safeguards will help ensure that faith-based organizations will not illegally promote religion while providing federally funded social services.

First, “explicitly religious activities,” including worship, religious instruction, and proselytizing, may not be offered at the same time and location as the social service. Second, faith-based organizations will be required to refer beneficiaries to a secular alternative if they object to the group’s religious character. Third, such organizations will be required to provide written notice to all beneficiaries, explaining their religious liberty rights.

If these rules are followed, at least no one should have to endure a religious pitch in order to receive government-funded services.

The new rules are far from perfect, however.

Faith-based organizations will still be permitted to discriminate in their hiring on the basis of religion, which is an outrage—if they accept federal funds, they should have to play by federal rules.

Additionally, faith-based organizations can even now display religious symbols or art in spaces where they deliver federally funded services.

Finally, faith-based organizations may be allowed to promote their religion with federal funds if their funding is given through a voucher-like program, where beneficiaries may choose their service provider. This is wrong-headed. Faith-based organizations that accept government money should be required to spend those funds in a way that the government itself would. Public taxes should only be used to promote the general welfare, not to promote religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased with the positive aspects of these new rules but will continue to challenge Bush’s faith-based initiative.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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