Faith Based Policies

Tom Shipka

In 1899 the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision on whether government may constitutionally grant public funds to a religious organization. In Bradfield v. Roberts the Court ruled that the District of Columbia could pay a hospital in Washington operated by an order of Catholic nuns to provide a secular service to the poor health care. (1) Under this ruling, many religious groups received public funds without controversy year after year. Typically such groups did not seek to proselytize their clients, only to serve them, and used no religious test in hiring and firing. When George W. Bush was elected President, however, he created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives with the intent to distribute much more tax dollars to religious organizations and he issued executive orders which changed past practice. Now such groups could mix sectarian and secular activities and could use religious criteria to hire and fire. (2) Challenges to the Bush program in the courts were unsuccessful.

As a result, many who were opposed to President Bush's faith-based programs turned to candidate Barack Obama for hope and he seemed poised to deliver relief if elected. For instance, in a speech in Ohio on July 1, 2008, he said:

"First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that money to proselytize to the people that you help and you can't discriminate against them or against the people you hire " on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that gob directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work." (3)

Based in part on these affirmations, Mr. Obama won solid support from civil libertarians and other supporters of separation of church and state, including millions who identify themselves as secular or non-religious. No fewer than 75 percent of the secular community voted for him. (4)

Since his election, however, Mr. Obama seems to have done a U-turn. He has left the Bush executive orders intact, he has retained the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and he has hired a 26-year old Pentecostal minister to run it. Seculars are disappointed and angry. For example, the current issue of Free Inquiry, a magazine that has a huge readership in the secular community, features no fewer than five articles critical of President Obama's early decisions on faith-based programs. (5) Seculars are not the only ones concerned. The Pew Research Center reports that 73 percent of Americans object to religious groups being allowed to discriminate in hiring and firing, and 61 percent oppose proselytizing of clients by religious groups who receive public funds. (6)

President Obama should either shut down the faith-based programs altogether or issue new rules to prevent proselytizing and discrimination in employment in them. He should also order that such programs be evaluated by the General Accounting Office or some other competent agency to determine their effectiveness. Only programs which successfully achieve their secular goals should be refunded.


  1. See Rob Boston, The Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Can We Unplug It? Free Inquiry June/July 2009, p. 3.
  2. President Bush denied that he authorized proselytizing but his failure to require monitoring of expenditures permitted and encouraged sectarian activities.
  3. Quoted in Rob Boston, p. 34.
  4. Rob Boston, p. 34.
  5. See pp. 26-40, Free Inquiry June/July 2009. The authors are Daniel Horowitz and Ruth Mitchell, who present an official position paper of the Council for Secular Humanism; Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Susan Jacoby, a specialist in American intellectual history; D. J. Grothe, an associate editor of Free Inquiry; and Ronald A. Lindsay, a lawyer and bioethicist who is CEO of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational.
  6. Rob Boston, p. 34.

© 2009 Tom Shipka