White House Faith Team Stalls on ‘Unlevel Playing Field’

Andrew D. Beadle
October 1, 2001

A much-anticipated White House report on government barriers to faith-centered endeavors failed to give a much-needed boost to President George Bush’s “Charitable Choice” proposal, which is idling in the Senate.

The first report issued by the new White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives armed charitable choice opponents with more ammunition to resist the amorphous proposal. “It was a bust all the way around,” said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in D.C.

Critics could not help noticing the report’s primary author, John J. DiIulio Jr., announced the day after the report was released that he was resigning as director of the administration’s office for faith-based issues. DiIulio said at the outset he would serve in the White House for only six months; he left after seven.

“Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs,” released in August, was the first official document to come out of the new office, and was expected to support the Bush plan to enact legislation to increase the range of social services faith-based organizations could provide using federal money.

Existing laws allow religious groups to compete for federal grants to provide social services without suppressing the religious character of the organization. Religiously affiliated organizations can compete for federal funds to run some welfare-to-work programs, community services and substance abuse treatment and prevention services.

Bush proposed unleashing “the Armies of Compassion” by expanding the number of eligible programs, and the House Republican leadership embraced the issue. In July the House passed legislation (HR 7) by 233-198 to expand charitable choice to eight new program areas, including juvenile justice, housing, hunger relief and senior services.

The legislation is languishing in the Senate, where concerns about the proposal were simmering long before Democrats regained control of the chamber in May.

The release of the report is not providing much impetus for congressional action in part, several critics said, because the report is inconsistent with itself. For example, it finds that “a funding gap exists between the government and the grassroots. Smaller groups, faith-based and secular, receive very little federal support relative to the size and scope of the social services they provide.”

The report relies on figures cobbled together from five federal departments: Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS). Each of those agencies, which have new offices for faith-based initiatives, tried to provide estimates of how much federal money was eventually granted to religious organizations.

“It is impossible to know the exact percentage across federal programs,” the report says. Agency officials also said most of their funds are distributed in state block grants, making it nearly impossible to determine if a final recipient is faith-based or not.

Where fed money goes

Nonetheless, the five agencies provided some information that helped bolster the White

House argument:

  • Education reported that in fiscal year (FY) 2000, 2 percent of its discretionary grants were awarded to faith- or community-based organizations.
  • HHS reported that in FY 2000, 21 percent of the competitive grants to provide abstinence education through Adolescent Family Life programs were awarded to faith-based groups.
  • HUD reported that in FY 2000, 16 percent of its grants for Continuum of Care, or $139 million, were awarded to faith-based groups.
  • Labor reported for FY 2000, 20 percent of its Youth Opportunity grants, or $43 million, were awarded to community-based organizations and 3 percent ($6.7 million) were awarded to faith groups.
  • Labor also said 2 percent of its competitive Welfare-to-Work grants went to faith-based groups in both FY 1998 and 1999.
  • Justice estimated for FY 2001 it will award $1.9 million of its $626.7 million in discretionary grants, or 0.3 percent, to faith-based organizations, and 7.5 percent ($47.2 million) to community-based providers.
  • Justice estimates for FY 2001, 0.3 percent ($8.1 million) of state formula grants will be awarded to faith groups and 0.2 percent ($5.4 million) will be awarded to community-based efforts.

The report says the numbers should be used “cautiously” because they are “fragmentary and not wholly reliable.”

The caveat was not lost on Bass at OMB Watch. “What does it mean? First of all, it’s impossible to know if the numbers are accurate,” Bass said. “Even if this is right, what does it mean? Is it good if it’s 50 percent [of an agency’s grants to faith groups] or 100 percent? I don’t know.”

Another criticism of the report is its lack of a clear definition for “faith-based” or “religious-based” organizations. “I’m not 100 percent sure I know their definition of faith-based,” said Bert J. Goldberg, president of the 145-member Association of Jewish Family and Children Agencies, based in East Brunswick, N.J.

Some people at nonprofits said they were not sure if the report meant an organization with an underlying religious faith, such as Catholic Charities, or if it meant just individual congregations.

Others agreed that the Bush administration missed an opportunity to help ease concerns about civil liberties and the separation of church and state. “Much of the difficulty in this debate around charitable choice is [that] there has been no differentiating between faith-based organizations and congregations,” said Pat Read, vice president for public affairs at Independent Sector in D.C., a coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporations.

Bush’s options

Supporters of the initiative said the report was useful by outlining 15 barriers to broader participation by faith-based and religious groups.

The report cites four laws that include charitable choice provisions, but says, “Charitable Choice has been essentially ignored by federal administrators.”

That obstacle can be overcome without additional help from Congress.

“Many of the changes that are needed can be done administratively, by executive order. … My suggestion would be to go full speed ahead and do what you can,” said Marvin Olansky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America.”

The reasons for the government’s reluctance to implement the laws vary, and include “a pervasive suspicion” of faith-based groups on behalf of the government.

Other barriers include an outright ban on religious groups for some programs, excessive restrictions on religious activities and the rejection of a religious group’s right to make hiring decisions based on religion.

The right of churches to discriminate in hiring, as provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is one of the strongest and most emotional arguments leveled against the legislation in Congress. Many lawmakers and civil libertarians do not want federal money to support an organization – or its activities – that can discriminate in hiring.

Some supporters are encouraging Bush to take executive action to implement existing law. “Tons of this is executive level responsibility,” said Jack Horner, an aide to House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (Okla.). Watts is the sponsor of HR 7. “There’s so much we can do, now that we see how many barriers there are.”

Opponents worry that the president will try to bypass Congress and implement charitable choice provisions throughout the government. “They will be implementing charitable choice even where they do not have the legislative authority,” a House Democratic aide projected.

The House-passed legislation is not expected to advance in the Senate, although Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) are working on similar legislation. Aides to the two senators said they do not expect much legislative action this year.

The report can be viewed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/08/unlevelfield.html.

Andrew D. Beadle can be reached at abeadle@youthtoday.org.


Beadle, Andrew D. "White House Faith Team Stalls on ‘Unlevel Playing Field’." Youth Today, October 2001, p. 42.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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