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Saying no to people of good faith

Now that President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has completed its first year of work and issued its final recommendations, we commend the President for resisting those extreme voices who call on him to discriminate against faith-driven organizations serving the poor here and abroad.

Yet, in the midst of a global recession affecting billions here and around the globe, some seem intent on showing the door to these dedicated humanitarians.

Faith-based charities have a proven, decades-long track record of effectiveness while serving the poor, the sick, the elderly and children-at-risk in America and throughout the world.  Last month, USAID awarded more than $50 million to several faith-based agencies, including Catholic Relief Services, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, for their long-term and dedicated efforts in rebuilding earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Yet, there is a vocal minority of advocates in the United States attempting to remove all federal support from faith-based groups unless they surrender what essentially makes them who they are: their faith.

Many faith-based organizations operate just as churches or synagogues do – hiring those of a common faith to serve a common purpose.  This practice is neither new nor illegal.  But some believe these service agencies should be excluded from partnership with the U.S. government unless they stop hiring staff of the same faith.  Of course by doing so, they would soon cease to be faith-based organizations.

Missing in the debate is a full understanding of the cataclysmic impact of what would amount to federal discrimination against
faith-based agencies.  Missing, too, is an understanding of history and the law. Let us be clear.  Millions of professionals and volunteers, buoyed by federal funding and driven by their faith, provide essential and compassionate help to people on the front lines of need.

The values they promote – love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and equality of all people – should not set off any alarms in Washington.  Notably, these were the values that drove Mother Teresa to spend her life serving those in the slums of Calcutta. Modern faith-driven humanitarians believe their faith sustains them to do likewise.

But, let’s answer the fair questions.  When using public funds, do these faith-based grantees only help those of the same faith or those who feign interest in converting?  Absolutely not.  The law already requires that federally funded programs prohibit discrimination in the delivery of aid and prohibit proselytizing.  Not only is this limitation driven by U.S. law, it is mandated of global relief organizations that choose to follow the standards of the Red Cross.

Do these partnerships use government grants to spread their own messages among recipients or otherwise skirt the law? No, grant money is used solely for secular services for people in need, regardless of faith.  Any religious activities must be privately funded and are required to be separated from the publicly funded services.  As for the law, religious associations were explicitly protected against government intrusion into their religious hiring policies by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and by a unanimous Supreme Court in 1987.

Simply put, “faith” is what makes faith-based organizations what they are. Don’t all mission-driven organizations recruit and hire those who embrace their values and mission? Non-faith-based examples would include Planned Parenthood and the The Nature Conservancy.President Obama has prudently resisted issuing any executive order or supporting any legislation to limit the rights of faith-based groups. “There is a force for good greater than government,” he said last year when establishing the advisory council.  “It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals,
and any place an American decides.”

The President recognizes we must use every resource available to serve those in need.  Faith-based organizations, whether Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, compelled by their shared mandate to serve the down-trodden, are at the forefront delivering social services around the globe.  They don’t discriminate against those that they serve — so let’s not discriminate against them.     

Nathan Diament is Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Dr. Vashti McKenzie is the presiding Bishop of the 13th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S.; Richard Stearns is the President of World Vision, U.S..  All three are members of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.


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