Trump Announces New Federal Faith And Community Initiative

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This article was originally published on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s website. As with articles published on Sacred Stories, it is meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

At a National Day of Prayer ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on May 3, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. This is President Trump’s version of a federal initiative created by President George W. Bush and continued, with changes, by President Barack Obama. The White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative shares much with its predecessors, although it is distinctly different in some ways.

What it shares with its predecessors is most important. The new Initiative, like the Bush and Obama programs, represents the federal government’s recognition of the incredible value and distinctive nature of the services faith-based and community-based organizations offer to their neighbors. It is important, therefore, that the federal government protect, rather than obstruct, their ability to serve. When such organizations are able to freely compete for federal funds to provide services, it benefits both government and those in need.  Furthermore, when government officials listen to and learn from grassroots organizations with close ties to their communities, it improves federal efforts to help the poor, the sick and the marginalized.

The new Executive Order says it like this:

Faith-based and community organizations have tremendous ability to serve individuals, families, and communities through means that are different from those of government and with capacity that often exceeds that of government. These organizations lift people up, keep families strong, and solve problems at the local level. The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs, and other Federal funding opportunities. The efforts of faith-based and community organizations are essential to revitalizing communities, and the Federal Government welcomes opportunities to partner with such organizations through innovative, measurable, and outcome-driven initiatives.

To ensure the “level playing field” in federal funding, President Trump’s Initiative maintains, with one change (see below), the Equal Treatment regulations promulgated by the Bush administration and confirmed, with some amendments, by the Obama administration. These are detailed rules that explicitly require officials to have no bias either for or against faith-based applicants for funds and that explicitly protect the religious character of faith-based organizations, protect voluntary religious activities offered by providers while not allowing beneficiaries to be coerced into religion, and prohibit religious discrimination against people needing services.

An Advisor in the Office of Public Liaison will head President Trump’s Initiative and will advise the President via the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. This is a different configuration than in the two previous administrations, which each established a distinct White House Office to be in charge of their programs, in each case headed by an official who reported directly to the President. Yet, as in the previous administrations, a main task of the new chief official is to coordinate with the renamed Centers for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives in some dozen major federal departments that administer federal funding programs in health care, education, social services, overseas development and disaster preparedness and response.

These Centers will continue to bring the bottom-up perspective of faith-based and community organizations into program design and implementation in their departments and into the White House’s policymaking. They will continue to recommend changes and monitor for barriers that obstruct the participation of smaller organizations in federal programs..

President Trump’s Executive Order on the Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative named four significant changes:

(1) An unfortunate change is the elimination of the guarantee that a person who objects to being served by a religious organization will be referred to a different service provider. This guarantee was first given as part of the first specifically “faith-based” legislation passed by Congress, the Charitable Choice provision in the 1996 welfare reform law. The Charitable Choice provision, just like the later Equal Treatment regulations, protects the religious freedom of beneficiaries by ensuring no religious discrimination against them and no coerced participation in religious activities. The guaranteed alternative was an added protection, a super protection, just in case a person might object to being served in a religious environment or by a particular religious organization.

President Obama, on the advice of his Advisory Council of religious and secular nonprofit leaders, extended the guarantee to all federal grant programs. In its original design (the Charitable Choice iteration), it was up to the government to find an alternative and to refer the person to that alternative. In his version, President Obama shifted  the duty to find an alternative and to make the referral to the faith-based provider. Yet it is the government, not a provider receiving government funds, that is best situated to know all of the alternatives. Moreover, as some religious freedom advocates and faith-based providers pointed out to the Trump administration, the referral obligation could force a faith-based organization to actively steer a person to an organization whose services include procedures against which the original provider has conscientious objections.

A good solution would have been to return to the Charitable Choice design, requiring the referral to be made by the government. Instead, the Trump executive order reverses the Obama administration’s expansion of the referral guarantee. It seems that neither the Bush nor the Obama administration was aware of any instance of a beneficiary asking for a referral — and yet this guarantee was a valuable super protection for the religious freedom of beneficiaries. Eliminating it may have no practical effect, but it gives the appearance of strengthening the position of faith-based providers at the expense of beneficiaries.

(2) President Trump’s Executive Order stresses that a main aim of the redesigned Initiative is to monitor federal programs and officials for violations of religious freedom and to report any violations to the Attorney General. Ensuring that federal operations respect the religious protections in federal law has always been one aspect of the federal faith-based initiative, and is now given a new emphasis.

(3) The Executive Order, in a valuable change, requires that executive branch departments and agencies that do not have a formal Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiative designate a Liaison for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives to coordinate with the White House Advisor on matters concerning faith-based and community-based organizations.

(4) The Executive Order provides for the occasional gathering of outside experts and leaders from religious and secular nonprofits and from state, local and tribal governments. These experts and leaders will be tapped for advice about various policy issues, “including poverty alleviation, religious liberty, strengthening marriage and family, education, solutions for substance abuse and addiction, crime prevention and reduction, prisoner reentry, and health and humanitarian services.” President Obama had a formal Advisory Council, as noted above; the Bush administration consulted widely through the broad networks of organizations that worked with the various Centers. Time will tell whether the new approach to gaining advice from outside government will work more effectively or result in uneven access by various faith and secular voices.

President Trump’s highly important Executive Order, presented at a ceremony where much of the talk was about conservative Christianity — although the audience was religiously diverse — and accompanied by a White House statement that stressed administration actions widely perceived as most valued by conservative Christians, has given the impression that the plan elevates some religious interests and some parts of America over other perspectives and citizens. However, this is a misreading of the substance of what the President has promulgated. The Federal Faith-Based and Community Initiative (to use the original Bush name) will continue as a vital means by which the federal government protects, partners with, and learns from our diverse civil society and its religious and its secular organizations.

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Stanley Carlson-Thies is the Senior Director of Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice.