The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
We write concerning your February 5, 2009 Executive Order on faith-based partnerships.
We share your appreciation for the essential role religious institutions have historically played and can continue to play in addressing many of our nation's most vital needs, as an important complement to government-funded programs. The League has strongly supported properly-crafted partnerships between government and religious institutions. Indeed, government-funded partnerships with religiously-affiliated organizations – such as Jewish Community Federations and Lutheran Social Services – have helped to combat poverty and to provide housing, education, and health care services for those in need. For decades, these successful partnerships have provided excellent service to communities largely unburdened by concerns over bureaucratic entanglements between government and religion.
As you know, the Bush Administration’s implementation of its faith-based initiative raised serious questions of both law and policy. We are concerned that your Executive Order fails to address critical constitutional safeguards for protecting religious organizations, beneficiaries, and the government.
Especially in the context of your vision of an expanded, better-funded faith-based initiative, we are deeply troubled by the prospect that taxpayer money will likely fund religious discrimination in employment decisions involving the people who deliver faith-based social services.
We believe that the proposed case-by-case review by the Justice Department is insufficient because this approach misses the opportunity for prophylactic guidance and Presidential leadership against employment discrimination by faith-based grant recipients. During the campaign, you stated that the Bush Administration faith-based initiative lacked essential safeguards against proselytizing and discrimination. Yet, the failure to establish new standards by which the Justice Department will judge whether an organization is entitled to an exemption to the religious nondiscrimination laws means that the old, inadequate safeguards remain the legal standards. This is especially troubling in light of last June’s deeply-flawed Office of Legal Counsel opinion holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be construed to exempt a religious organization from certain religious nondiscrimination provisions.
We also believe that your Administration should establish other key safeguards prior to any additional action by the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and by the federal agencies. Specifically, safeguards must ensure that:
- Program beneficiaries are not subject to unwanted proselytizing or religious activities.
- There is a clear separation in time and location between government-funded social welfare activities and an organization’s religious activities. In addition, the delivery of benefits must not occur in an environment with a pervasively sectarian atmosphere, including religious icons and sacred texts.
- Secular alternatives to social services provided by houses of worship and other religious institutions are readily available to beneficiaries. All beneficiaries should be made aware of secular alternatives, and have realistic and convenient access to them.
- Recipients of government funds establish accounting systems and governance procedures to separate government dollars from funds that support core religious activities. These firewalls would ensure that taxpayer dollars are not channeled into the religious activities of the recipient religious organizations. As a practical matter, the best way to establish this division is through the creation of a separate corporate structure distinguishing the religious organization from its government-funded social services program.
- Recipients of government funds must comply with all the requirements and limitations imposed upon all government-funded activity by the religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
- Extremist, terrorist or hate mongering groups are not eligible for government funds.
Regrettably, many of these safeguards are not now required, and for those that are, there is insufficient monitoring for compliance. Establishing these standards will go a long way towards returning the relationship between government and religion to its proper course.
We stand ready to be a resource to you as you work to restore essential constitutional safeguards for protecting religious organizations, beneficiaries, and the government.
Glen S. Lewy
Abraham H. Foxman