Religious Minorities

A Win In Congress For Church-State Separation – And For People In Need

  Dena Sher

Perseverance is sometimes the watchword in Americans United’s work. Here’s how it recently paid off: The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill that got rid of a controversial policy that had plagued a critical government program to help families in need – and undermined separation of church and state – for two decades.

The story begins in the mid-1990s. Then-U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and others wanted to radically change government programs that make up our nation’s social safety net, programs that allow people to access food, shelter, job training and other services to improve their lives and the well-being of their families. His goal: funnel money to religious organizations to deliver social services – and hopefully religion – to people in need.

It’s no secret that faith-based social service organizations have long served people in need, often in partnership with the government. But Ashcroft made up a story about how religious organizations faced discrimination at the hands of the government and couldn’t get money to provide services – and prayer – to people. Then, to solve this made-up problem, Ashcroft and his allies devised a legislative proposal called “charitable choice.”

This proposal was radical, and it broke down safeguards that ensured separation of church and state. Ashcroft wanted to create special rules for faith-based organizations instead of requiring all organizations that got taxpayer funds to deliver services to play by the same rules as they always had.

First, charitable choice allowed faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring for taxpayer-funded jobs. Thus, an organization could take government funds and use that money to refuse to hire an otherwise qualified candidate for a taxpayer-funded job based on her religion. But taxpayer dollars should never fund discrimination, and no one should be denied a taxpayer-funded job because they are of the “wrong” religion.

And even though religious organizations are hiring people to deliver secular, taxpayer-funded services, charitable choice authorizes this discrimination as a way to further the organization’s religious mission.

There were other rule changes, too. For example, charitable choice allowed these organizations to put religious displays in the spaces where taxpayer-funded services are delivered and allowed faith-based providers to invite people getting services to “voluntarily” attend religious programming. When you consider these changes in combination with the hiring issue, the goal of charitable choice seems pretty clear: to advance the religious missions of these organizations on taxpayers’ dime.

Finally, original supporters of charitable choice viewed it as a way for faith-based organizations to circumvent hard-won state and local laws barring employment discrimination for LGBTQ people.

Bottom line: Charitable choice placed the interests of religious organizations, some of which accept millions of dollars of government money each year, ahead of the needs of people, often vulnerable and marginalized, seeking critical social services. The misguided policy made it harder for people to get the services they need and undermined the effectiveness of government-funded programs.

After Ashcroft and his allies added charitable choice to key social service programs focused on reducing poverty and helping vulnerable families, Americans United responded. We helped form – and continue to lead – a coalition to fight this controversial policy.

Together with more than 50 leading religious, civil rights, education, reproductive rights, labor, LGBTQ, secular and women’s organizations, AU has worked to stop Congress from adding charitable choice policies to any other social service programs, and we’ve worked to ensure that Congress does not advance legislation that would continue charitable choice in some programs where it had been added 20 years ago. These are all significant victories. But one goal remained elusive: removing charitable choice from several vital social service programs that have had it for years.

And here’s where the perseverance comes in. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives recently joined together to approve the Community Services Block Grant Modernization Act of 2022, legislation that struck charitable choice provisions from the program. Since 1998, this program has had charitable choice, and since 1998, the controversial policy stood in the way of updating the program that helps families and communities in need. But now this critical program has moved forward in Congress, freed from this contentious policy and finally modernized to meet the needs of people, families and communities across the country.

Change doesn’t often happen overnight. It takes months, years, maybe even decades, of hard work, expertise in the law and strategy and the ability to bring together effective coalitions and forge partnerships with decision-makers. That’s what Americans United does every day. That’s why this moment is worth celebrating.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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