Principles for Effective Sacred Public Partnerships During COVID-19

By: Chelsea Langston Bombino

April 22, 2020

Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Welfare

This pandemic has blurred the lines, for many of us, between the different institutions in which we fulfill our God-given responsibilities. Our living room couches or kitchen tables may now be our offices, our worshipping spaces, our children’s classrooms, and our boardrooms. Our lives are disrupted not just because a novel virus exists, but because it has dramatically affected the social institutions that make up the fabric of our daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic presents particular challenges and opportunities for faith-based nonprofits to incarnate the distinctive assets of their faith-based missions to address emerging, complex challenges.

Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), launched in 2017 with the goal of empowering faith-based nonprofits and their leaders to navigate the increasingly complex challenges of a pluralistic, twenty-first century society. This learning community empowers faith-based organizations (FBOs) to live out their missions holistically: in navigating public policy, in adapting organizational best practices, and in public positioning (an approach we refer to as the “Three P’s”). 

For the faith-based sector, like all other sectors, there is no area of organizational life that COVID-19 has not impacted. This includes how FBOs evaluate and use or refuse government funding. In the current COVID-19 health and economic crises, the federal government has launched major aid programs to support not only businesses, but also nonprofits, including houses of worship and faith-based service organizations. The federal government has also launched other programs to provide various kinds of assistance to employees and the unemployed. Many faith-based nonprofits wonder about the wisdom and technical aspects of accepting such government support to help them and their workers through this crisis. These are appropriate questions. CPJ has developed guidance outlining considerations for faith-based nonprofits involved with accepting government assistance to continue to operate during the current crisis. For an overview, see CPJ’s recent webinar about the new emergency legislation, as well as additional COVID-19 resources for FBOs.

Predating these vital and sweeping new assistance programs, and continuing alongside them, are what we term “partnership” programs. There are the many government funding programs where federal, state, and local governments seek out partnerships with diverse civil society organizations, including faith-based organizations, to become a partner-in-service. Interested organizations can compete for government funds to provide some kind of service to people in the community, such as substance use treatment, vocational training, or connecting foster children with adoptive families.

Faith-based and government partnerships embody the concept of public justice. Public justice affirms a positive, but restrained role for government. Government ought to support equality of opportunity by funding programs and services that advance quality of life for the most under-resourced members of our communities to develop their full human potential. Yet public justice also insists that government should normally seek partnerships with civil society organizations that have the capacity to have the greatest impact in their communities, including religious institutions, rather than providing these services directly. The concept of public justice is central in the equal treatment rules that enable faith-based and government partnerships to have a positive and distinct impact on the diverse needs of communities.

Principles of the Equal Treatment Framework

Typically, FBOs are eligible to compete for government grants and contracts on equal footing with secular organizations without abandoning their religious character. As a general rule, government creates partnerships with FBOs based on the effectiveness and quality of their services, without requiring these organizations to surrender their distinctive, religiously based way of contributing to the public good. The equal eligibility of faith-based and secular organizations for federal funding dates back to the Clinton administration, and is often referred to as the Equal Treatment rules. These rules were applied widely to federal funding during the George W. Bush administration, were reaffirmed—with some changes—by the Obama administration, and remain in effect today under the Trump administration. According to the Equal Treatment principles, while organizations may maintain their religious identity, they are also responsible for respecting the religious rights of all beneficiaries. These guidelines apply not only to government grants and contracts, but also indirect funds such as vouchers, which allow community members to choose their preferred social service, including a service that involves religious activities.    

A large proportion of state and local social services are funded by federal dollars; the federal level-playing field rules accompany the federal dollars even when it is a state or local agency that awards the money in the form of grants (or contracts or vouchers) to provide services. In addition, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides a way for FBOs that consider religion when hiring to challenge restrictive rules that are sometimes attached to federal funding. Notwithstanding these positive reforms, government money comes with many strings, or special conditions, some of which may affect the religious identity and practices of an FBO. However, FBOs should understand that avoiding government money is no guarantee of avoiding secularizing restrictions. Increasingly, secularizing restrictions are being applied as a condition of operating, even when no government money is involved. Some of the restrictions are attached to licensing or accreditation, whereas other restrictions are applied via public accommodations law, employment law, or other general requirements.

​'A Time for Innovation'

Some religious groups may choose to partner with the government to provide services; others may decide that government funding would be unwise for them despite the protections of the federal faith-based initiative (and similar protections that usually exist in state law and often exist in local law). Leaders of FBOs need to be discerning and aim to make informed decisions when considering government grants or contracts for the provision of social services. But one thing remains clear: It is essential that FBOs understand they have the freedom to serve in partnership with government, and not only be aided to stay in operation, especially in a time such as this. One leader of a historic black church in the Washington, DC, region recently told us: “Sometimes the black church gets left behind. We should not change our message, but we should change our methods. Churches should discern what resources their communities need from government, making sure they don't reject those resources just because they don't agree with certain public officials. This is a time for innovation and seeking God’s face in everything we do as a church. Pastors should consider new partnerships, whether with government or other groups, to advance the health of their communities.”

If you are part of a faith-based organization and would like support beyond this resource, please contact Sacred Sector Director Chelsea Langston Bombino

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