President affirms faith-based partnerships, but new rules raise questions

President Barack Obama CNA US Catholic News 11 18 10 President Barack Obama

Two Catholics with extensive experience in partnerships between religious charities and the government have expressed different opinions about President Obama's Nov. 17 executive order, which provided new guidelines for faith-based groups that receive federal assistance.

In his introduction to the order, President Obama said the directive was intended to “promote compliance with constitutional and other applicable legal principles,” and to “strengthen the capacity of faith-based and other neighborhood organizations to deliver services effectively to those in need.”

Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, welcomed the presidential decree. His agency praised the Obama administration's continued commitment to faith-based partnerships, describing the executive order as “an important affirmation” of “critical programs.”

The Catholic Charities' president is also a member of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Last spring, the council issued a series of recommendations on how to improve government partnerships with religious charities, while clarifying boundaries between churches and state agencies.

The White House used the advisory council's recommendations to draft the new executive order. Fr. Snyder said he appreciated the administration's “responsiveness … to the recommendations of the council,” with Catholic Charities saying it “looks to President Obama to continue to embrace joint cooperation in the wake of this executive order.”

While the executive order explicitly confirmed the administration's continued desire to help believers serve the public, a past director of the White House's work on faith-based initiatives has expressed skepticism about its possible effects.

Jim Towey, a lawyer who headed the Office of Faith-Based and Communitive Initiatives under President George W. Bush before serving for five years as the president of Pennsylvania's Saint Vincent College, told CNA/EWTN News that the executive order was unnecessary, and could burden religious social workers with new rules and documentation requirements if they choose to receive federal help. 

The executive order explicitly affords a series of significant rights to groups that receive federal funding. They may display religious iconography in their facilities, maintain religious references in the names of their programs, choose board members on the basis of their faith, and make reference to faith in their mission statements and internal documents.

Nevertheless, Towey said other provisions might lead government partners into a swamp of regulations and paperwork. In particular, he pointed to a section on “referral to an alternative provider.”

Under that heading, the executive order requires federally-funded faith-based groups to refer any “beneficiary or potential beneficiary” to an “alternative provider” of the same service, if the individual objects to the group's religious affiliation. Those groups must notify the government of “any referral” that takes place for this reason.

Such groups must also ensure that “each beneficiary of a social service program receives written notice” of their right to be referred to a non-religious agency, “prior to enrolling in or receiving services” from a faith-based program.

The executive order also specifies that faith-based groups can only engage in “explicitly religious activities” if these are separate in both “time and location” from any government-funded activities.

That joint requirement, Towey commented, might cause problems if one facilities serve two purposes but only receives federal funding for one, or if the schedule of a group's privately-supported religious activities and government-supported non-religious activities happened to overlap in time despite being otherwise separate.

Towey believes that these new regulations will have a “chilling effect”– dissuading religious groups who might otherwise want to partner with the government. Many such groups, he said, would not be willing to divert time and energy away from the needy, for the task of proving their compliance with longstanding principles that they have never been accused of violating.

He noted that President George W. Bush's guidelines for partnering with religious groups had been in place for eight years, during which time “there hasn't been a single legal challenge or question” to necessitate the new guidelines.

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