The Obama administration has failed to regulate discrimination by federally-funded faith-based organizations

By Andy Kopsa

I have been investigating and reporting on an anti-gay Christian political organization, the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC), for over a year now.  The IFPC, a state affiliate of the Family Research Council*, a premier national anti-gay rights organization, has received over $3 million in government grants since 2005.  When I began uncovering the ease with which the IFPC (and numerous other FRC state affiliates) applied for and received federal funding, coupled with their blatant anti-gay political message, I began investigating the history and mechanics of the faith-based funding system.

I, like many others, anxiously awaited President Obama’s executive order expected to revise George W. Bush’s policymaking and funding criteria for faith-based organizations. But the order released on November 17th offers little in the way of true reform. Instead it is a wordy regurgitation of existing transparency reformations, offers minor tweaks to protections of beneficiaries, does nothing for spending oversight reform and completely eschews legalized hiring discrimination allowed faith-based organizations.

In 2008, then candidate Obama said that although he supported funding faith-based programs, he would do away with hiring discrimination.  However, like so many Obama promises, that is one yet to be fulfilled.  The support for this discrimination is couched as religious freedom by the Christian right – protecting a Christian’s right to not hire a non-Christian for no other reason than that – as a way for religious organizations to maintain their integrity and mission.

Immediately after taking office in 2009 President Obama issued a memorandum to executive agencies calling for new vigor in fulfilling the public’s need for transparency and openness in government.  It called for all cabinet-level agencies, some of which distribute faith-based funding, to make public information available on their websites. It expanded Freedom of Information Act openness and required agencies to turn around requests as quickly as possible.  Obama appeared to be trying to shake off eight years of secrecy and paranoia that governed the Bush administration.

A portion of the November 17, 2010 executive order restates improvements from the 2009 transparency memo such as requiring online access to faith-based funding guidelines, policies and procedures and lists of federal funding grantees and presents them as something new and worthy of inclusion in a revised executive order.  What it really does is take up much needed space in the practically toothless document.

Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy who served on the committee that reviewed and made recommendations to clean-up the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said in a press release last week the President’s executive order “puts in place important protections for recipients of social services through faith-based groups, it does not go far enough in ensuring that federal tax dollars are not used to support explicitly religious activity.”

President Obama has provided no avenue of remedy for the American taxpayer to recoup monies misused by a faith-based organization through a claw back provision.  Claw backs have been controversial as they “claw back” money that has already been distributed.  However, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has used the idea of claw back – some say unsuccessfully – for state Medicare repayments.  More encouragingly, legislators have suggested implementing a claw back to halt bonus compensation for executives of companies receiving TARP – taxpayer – funds.  A similar avenue to recoup misspent grant money would be a step in the right direction.

A fine example of where a claw back could come in handy is with the case of a Massachusetts-based abstinence education organization called “The Silver Ring Thing” (TSRT). In 2005, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against TSRT for its use of religious programming.  The organization received over $1 million in federal funding and used testimony to Jesus Christ, Bible passages and claimed a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life,” to teach abstinence only. The government put a hold on funding to The Silver Ring Thing and committed to increased monitoring of any further programs by the group through HHS.

However, monitoring and pro-active follow up on faith-based grantees by government agencies, specifically the one I have investigated, by the HHS is practically non-existent.

Most Healthy Marriage and Compassion Capital grants rely on self-reporting by the grantees themselves.  The government provides a guideline of quarterly or annual reporting dates when grantees submit reports on what they have accomplished with federal dollars, organizations they have supported and other organizational information.  The only official safeguard against organizations prosthelytizing on the taxpayer’s dime is their signature on a piece of government paper agreeing not to.

Compassion Capital grants were crafted solely to support small religious organizations through a larger, typically statewide, pass-through entity like The United Way, Big Brothers, Big Sisters and, again the Iowa Family Policy Center. Healthy Marriage grants were designed to mentor couples and promote one type of marriage only, the Christian one man, one woman ideal.

In my research on the Iowa Family Policy Center, numerous state and federal officials said that the main avenue to investigate misappropriation and use of funding by faith-based organizations came from citizen complaints.  Obama’s executive order does nothing to directly impact this serious lack of oversight by the federal government.  The absence of active oversight is as much a standard operating procedure of the federal government as it is a lack of accountability left over from the Bush era.

There is little in the way of beneficiary protections as well.  President Obama states in his order that if any beneficiary seeking services provided by a federally funded faith-based program has problems with the religious nature of the entity, an alternative provider must be offered them.  This is great on paper; however, in actual practice the implementation could prove impractical or impossible based on availability of regional programming and is more lip service than actionable item.

Expanding on lack of beneficiary protection, there is absolutely no federal protection for homosexuals seeking services from federally funded programs.  I return to the Iowa Family Policy Center as an example.  The lion’s share of IFPC’s federal funding came through the Bush era HHS “Healthy Marriage” Program.  IFPC formed “Marriage Matters” to provide pre-marriage and marriage mentoring to couples across the state of Iowa through murder mystery-themed date nights and weekend couples getaways, all facilitated by married Christian mentors.

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, thereby legalizing gay marriage.  So, the question for some became: if a same sex couple legally married in the state of Iowa were to seek marriage mentoring through the expressly anti-gay IFPC Marriage Matters program, could they legally be denied mentoring services because of IFPC’s religiously held belief that gay marriage is wrong?

The answers I received were not decisive.  Brigitte Amiri, attorney for the ACLU of New York, said federal grantees are bound by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which does not afford protection based on sexual orientation.  However, Amiri also pointed out that state law would come into play in such a case if brought before the courts.  Iowa’s civil rights law does allow equal protection on the basis of sexual orientation, making it possible for a gay couple to find remedy if ever denied services by Marriage Matters.

From a 2009 Pew report, via Oregon Faith Report

All of that speculation is now moot.  After it was revealed that the Iowa Family Policy Center and Marriage Matters received federal funding, the group self terminated the final year of funding.  Speculation is IFPC walked away from the last year of government grants to avoid further scrutiny as the ACLU of Iowa announced it would investigate the group.

Some form of faith-based funding has always existed.  See the 1899 Bradfield v. Roberts case where the Supreme Court found public money could go to a Catholic hospital or the 1988 Bowen v. Kendrick case where the Court found religiously-affiliated groups could receive federal aid.

However, when President George W. Bush introduced his brand of faith-based funding in 2001 he opened up government coffers to a whole other breed of faith-based organization.  Anti-choice Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Community Based Abstinence Education organizations, numerous anti-gay “Healthy Marriage” groups and recipients of so-called Compassion Capital grants, to name only a few examples, received millions upon millions** of taxpayer dollars.

David Kuo, Special Assistant to President Bush from 2001 to 2003, writes in his book “Tempting Faith” about the Bush administration’s desire to bring Jesus to the masses through federally-subsidized programs.  Recognizing the administration couldn’t overtly promote Christianity through faith-based funding programs, Kuo wrote, “We knew we couldn’t feed Jesus to people but if we could get money to private religious groups, virtually all of whom were Christian, we could show them to the dining room.”

Faith-based funding as it exists today, even with the minor reforms provided by President Obama, should be abolished. Barring abolition – we have to live with it. What this means is more investigations of federally funded, faith-based organizations are required by the media.  It means citizens interested in the separation of church and state need to call their Attorney General when federal money is being used for expressly religious activities or to discriminate against a person because of their religion or sexual orientation.

Many of us thought that Obama would usher in serious reform, actual religious freedom, and hold the government to a higher level of accountability regarding this issue.  But as evidenced by his most recent executive order, Obama isn’t our man.  The President has no political will to take on the Religious Right – a trait shared with democrats in the legislature – nor the desire.  President Obama is a Christian and a pragmatist.  The Christian in him likely believes some “good” outweighs the societal and constitutional “bad” of the faith-based funding nightmare.  The pragmatist in him perhaps believes, with 2012 in the wings, he cannot afford to alienate whatever religious electorate he still commands.

*Family Research Council was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in November, 2010

** Faith Based funding is challenging to track because funds are distributed through the various government departments, including HHS, the CDC and the Justice Department

Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Washington Independent and AlterNet.  As a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor, Andy writes frequently for the Iowa Independent.

Continue reading:

2009 Pew article on media coverage of the faith-based initiative program

Americans United brochure