This article was originally published on the Urban Church Leadership Center’s “Insights” article collection.
By Chelsea Langston Bombino
As a general rule these days, government creates partnerships with churches based on the effectiveness and quality of their services without requiring these organizations to surrender their distinctive, religiously based contributions to the public good. Despite this, religious organizations may have their own reasons to stay away from government funding in general or from particular funding programs. A church or an FBO should be guided by its religious mission when considering potential funding, whether from government or from other sources.
If a church chooses to partner with the government and accept a grant or a contract, it should do so because the church sees that the government funding will build its capacity to fulfill its sacred mission, even as it fulfills the government’s purposes for the funding. Regardless of the funding opportunities an FBO chooses to pursue, it is important to have internal policies and practices that strengthen the mission and services of the organization. This internal consistency and commitment to excellence not only ensures that the beneficiary’s needs will be met, but also that the FBO will stay true to its religious identity and continue to carry out its sacred mission.
How to Navigate Government Restrictions
While the process of applying for and administering government funding can be complex, churches should be able to master the challenges. Similarly, although government funding is accompanied by various restrictions, FBOs should not assume that receiving government funds means they must compromise their distinctive religious identities. Churches should consider the specific requirements and opportunities presented by various government grants and contracts and strive to establish sound practices that strengthen their faith-based mission. Such good practices are also vital when an organization accepts funding from corporations or foundations.
Most governmental funding follows the rules of equal treatment, which means it should be awarded without regard to the religious or secular character of applicants: funding should go to the best applicants. This “level playing field” concept has, over the past two decades, come to replace the older idea that governments must not partner with organizations that are “too religious” or sectarian. The new concept is an expression of a better interpretation of the First Amendment and of a new governmental recognition of the essential, uncommon good that is accomplished by religious people and organizations.
Much of the social service funding awarded via grants or contracts by state or local government agencies originates with the federal government, and the basic rules for such funding are therefore federal. Note that local officials might not be aware of the federal rules they are supposed to respect, especially if they are not used to working with churches. If you encounter rules that seem overly restrictive, ask whether an inappropriate restriction is being applied.
However, remember that your organization is responsible for understanding and complying with the requirements of the funding, which, despite equal treatment rules, may include restrictions on the way services or employment is handled. It is not defensible to say that officials knew your organization was religious, so it must be acceptable for it to follow its religious practices even if they conflict with the requirements of the funding.
It’s important to note that the protections of the equal treatment regulations for religious practices only apply to organizations that are clearly and sincerely faith motivated, not to secular organizations. As a first step, a church or an FBO should review its foundational documents to ensure that they clearly establish its religious identity and describe why its religious distinctives (values, activities, practices) are essential to the organization.
After a church has foundational documents that outline its core religious identity, its board members and other leaders should create written guidelines to use in evaluating the conditions that come with government (and private) funding. Which principles and practices cannot be compromised, no matter what? Which organizational activities and practices are expressions of the core religious convictions and must be safeguarded? A written resource to guide the organization’s decision-making process in evaluating external funding makes the proper application of its principles and convictions much clearer and keeps everyone in the organization accountable to vital beliefs.
For example, a congregation program that delivers meals to low-income senior citizens, which receives both private and government funds, may decide to accept no more than one fifth of its total funds from the government to preserve its autonomy. This decision is grounded in the organization’s written guidance on acceptance of external funds and is an example of a policy that the organization had decided must not be compromised. Other examples of non-negotiables might include the following:
An employment policy only to hire people who affirm the organization’s belief and conduct standards
An insistence on serving every immigrant, documented or undocumented, and of whichever religious belief
A refusal to facilitate elective abortions
A limitation to the percentage of services that are government funded
These guidelines may also be included in a more general donor receipt policy that confirms the importance of best financial practices and keeps the organization accountable to its employees, donors, and to the public. Adopting guidelines specifically for what your church will (or will not) do in order to partner with the government is a positive, proactive measure that will help keep your organization out of the courtroom and on course to fulfill its mission.