Stateline Story

States Slow To Fund Faith-Based Organizations

  • July 11, 2001
  • By Jason White
Five years after President Clinton signed a law allowing state governments to direct federal funds to faith-based organizations, most states have not given a single dollar to religious nonprofits and only a handful have sent significant sums their way.

Experts say the slow-going has been caused by bureaucratic inertia, fear of lawsuits for constitutional violations, resistance among some officials, a tepid response from the faith community, and a lack of teeth in the original regulation.

"It just got put on the back burner by most people," says Amy Sherman, an expert on religion and social policy and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Indianapolis, Ind.

Bob Wineburg, an outspoken critic of Charitable Choice and a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, notes a more willful resistance on the part of some state officials.

"They don't have the manpower to go in and see if churches are using the money for evangelization," he says. "There's the fear that if they screw up the liberals will go after them and get them in court. They're going to choose the path of least resistance. It's politics 101."

Passed as a little-noticed part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, Charitable Choice is the given name for the provision that allows state governments to partner with religious organizations not traditionally eligible for public funding. In the past, states could partner with some religious organizations, but only if they first set up administratively separate nonprofit entities -- such as Catholic Charities. But under Charitable Choice, religious groups need not lose their religious character before accepting public dollars.

In a move that has spurred much public debate, President Bush has proposed expanding Charitable Choice to include many more than the four government programs it now encompasses -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Community Services Block Grant, Welfare-to-Work, and drug treatment under the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act. Bush says this will transform communities as more and more religious institutions take on social service work. But the early returns from Charitable Choice indicate it may take much more than a new law to make a substantial difference in how social services are delivered at the local level.

To date, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin have been the most aggressive in working with faith-based organizations. Among them a few hundred contracts have been signed and millions of dollars funneled to faith-based nonprofits.

Ohio started working with religious organizations under Charitable Choice in October 1997.

"It fit in extremely well with what our philosophy was," says Joel Potts, spokesman for the Department of Job and Family Services. "We are among the most aggressive in pushing local control. We want to energize communities."

Last year, Ohio awarded $25 million in contracts to faith-based organizations under TANF, one of the largest totals among the states. But even this is just a small percentage of the state's total TANF spending -- $350 million.

Another fourteen states have used Charitable Choice sparingly, offering only a handful of contracts. Among this group, Arkansas, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Missouri have been most active. The thirty-one remaining states have given few or no dollars to faith-based organizations, according to a 50-state study by The Associated Press. This figure is backed-up by a report from the Center for Public Justice, a pro-Charitable Choice think tank, that gives 37 states failing grades for non-compliance.

The reasons why so few states have embraced faith-based nonprofits range from indifference to bureaucratic inertia to restrictive state laws.

Georgia finds itself in a rather unique situation. It is bound by a state constitution that is more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution in its separation of church and state. The relevant clause reads: "No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution."

This has been interpreted by Attorney General Michael Bowers to mean that even non-sectarian programs organized by religious organizations are not eligible for funding, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . Lawmakers have launched efforts to amend the state constitution, but so far they have not succeeded. Until they do, Charitable Choice will have no legs to stand on in Georgia.

In a more typical but by no means universal example, Massachusetts officials have resisted changing their policy of requiring groups to cleanse the religious elements from their social services. The state is not against contracting with religious organizations per se, but it will do so only if they maintain a distinct separation between worship and social work. The Center for Public Justice gave Massachusetts an 'F' for its effort. And The Boston Globe reports that Charitable Choice has done little to change things.

Sherman says that although examples of outright resistance to Charitable Choice can be found, it is not the norm. More common, she says, is a focus on other priorities. "Any public officials trying to put into effect all the policies and procedures required by [the 1996 Welfare Reform Act] had a million things to do before they got to the Charitable Choice section," she says.

Bush Administration officials aren't surprised the states have acted slowly.

"There were no teeth," says Stanley Carlson-Thies, associate director for law and policy in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and author of the Center for Public Justice's Charitable Choice Report Card. "There was no withholding of funds. There weren't any standards."

Carlson-Thies believes the absence of federal enforcement coupled with the reluctance of faith-based organizations to use the one mechanism that would force states to open their coffers -- lawsuits -- created a climate in which it was easiest for states to just do nothing. "There was no push from either side to overcome the strong inertia and contrary arguments of many states," he says.

The overwhelming attention Charitable Choice received during the presidential contest, in which both candidates expressed an appreciation for the program, and now, with Bush's proposal before Congress, seems to have spurred more action lately on implementation of the 1996 law. Researchers note a pronounced upsurge in contracting between state governments and faith-based organizations over the past year. Nevertheless, implementation is still lagging. And it will not improve significantly unless cultural hurdles in states like Massachusetts and legal hurdles in states like Georgia are overcome.