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A Word From Suzii – Religious Liberty: Present Tense

July 31st, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Religious liberty is so central to our US foundation that on most days it is invisible to us. But religious liberty is also radical, fragile and personal. Those denied liberty feel it. The heroic defenders often suffer. Laws which are made in lofty impersonal chambers of the highest courts or legislative bodies have long fingers that reach into each neighborhood.  Earlier this month I joined with seventy other faith leaders to discuss religious liberty and important policy developments that will continue to define the relationship of church and state on federal and state levels.

The Obama administration and faith based initiatives. Relationships of church and state have been a part of the American landscape for more than two hundred years. Within the new administration church state policy trends are emerging at several levels: new religion and public policy initiatives are being expanded in the State Department, the White House Advisory Council is also creating policy direction for faith based and community initiatives. There are no conclusive outcomes this early in the administration, however, the following recommendations proposed by Melissa Rogers and EJ Dionne in a paper “Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom (pdf),” show the parameters of discussion for some initial issues of the White House council. These recommendations include:

  1. Recognize and promote both financial and nonfinancial religious partnerships.
  2. Ensure government funding goes to programs that work.
  3. Use both Executive branch and Congress to forge policies; include the use of an advisory group and White House Council to seek consensus for federal legislation.
  4. Clarify restrictions on aid and religious activities. Monitor compliance.
  5. Protect the identity of religious providers.
  6. Specify the distinction between government funded activities and privately funded religious activities.
  7. Insure protection of religious liberty for service recipients.
  8. Study and revise religion-based hiring distinctions; the goal is to both honor religious identity and respect government funding policy.
  9. Simplify the process of forming 501.c.3 organizations. Create new incentives for charitable giving.
  10. Use peer review, evaluation and accountability measures relevant to religious organizations. Create workshops and seminars for training and outreach.

New structures in Texas to address faith based initiatives. Texas recently passed legislation that provides for some new structures to promote productivity for faith based organizations and their cooperation with the state (81st Session pdf). Dialogue, cooperation and planning among government and faith based partnerships increase the effectiveness of much needed service to Texas families. Cooperation does not happen in a vacuum, however, and explicit bodies that duly recognize faith based groups and discuss partnerships have not been designated in Texas before. This legislation directs agencies and private advisory groups to intentionally cooperate for the common good by establishing the following:

  • Government Agency Liaisons – One employee from each major state agency appointed to serve as liaisons between their agency and faith and community-based organizations:
  • Interagency Coordinating Group -The interagency group is composed of each of the governmental liaisons for faith and community-based organizations.
  • Task Force for Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity – The task force is composed of representatives from both the government and the private sector to advise and plan to build nonprofit capacity statewide.
  • Renewing Communities Account Advisory Committee – Leaders of faith and community-based organizations shall make recommendations to the executive commissioner of the HHSC regarding the Renewing Communities Account funds for capacity building.

The Texas bill has explicit protections for safeguarding religious freedom. There was significant discussion among legislators about this aspect of the bill. This bill references Federal Code 42 U.S.C. Section 604a and includes:

(j) Limitations on use of funds for certain purposes. No funds provided directly to institutions or organizations to provide services and administer programs under subsection (a)(1)(A) of this section shall be expended for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization.

Other references in the bill to religious protections occur in Sec 535.104 ((7) establish policies and procedures to ensure that any money appropriated from the account to the commission that is allocated to build the capacity of a faith-based organization or for a faith-based initiative, including money allocated for the establishment of the advisory committee under Section 535.108, is not used to advance a sectarian purpose or to engage in any form of proselytization.

These new Texas councils and advisory committees provide an opportunity for a variety of religious leaders to join together to direct the development of appropriate church state relationship in Texas. If you are interested in serving on any advisory bodies for Texas faith based initiatives, please send an email. Although fashioned by a robust history, religious liberty is not a dusty vestige of the past, it is contemporary and subject to change. The expression of liberty is subject to the domestications and consequences of change at state, federal and international levels.

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2 Responses

  1. Arthur Sherwood says:

    I remain concerned about the establishment of “faith-based” anything in government; it will ultimately lead to unsatisfactory or unacceptable compromises on both sides. While the intent of providing for the common good is worthwhile, the risk is great. For example, I don’t understand how any evangelical organization can accept the limitations on its actions implied in the Federal Code cited above, “not used to advance a sectarian purpose or to engage in any form of proselytization.” I think the risk to our religious freedom is too great to be worth the small convenience of linking even slightly, church and state.
    Respectfully,
    Art Sherwood

  2. I have a concern about issues I see that will be coming to confront our public/private partnerships. One of our faith based ministries contracts heavily with both the state and Federal government. Thus far nothing has been said about our hiring only Christians to work in this agency, but the day may be coming when that could become an issue. The staff are careful about proselytizing, but do openly live their faith. They deliver professional services from a Christian values base. If the time arrives when we cannot discriminate in hiring and if sexual preference becomes a protected class, this wonderful agency may need to dissolve or be cut loose as an independent program no longer associated with Texas Baptists.

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