Protecting Religious Freedom
The term "faith-based initiative" refers to a related group of policy changes at the federal and state level intended to shift taxpayer dollars to religious social service providers. At the federal level, these changes have led to a slate of problems, as a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office demonstrated. That report concluded that federal faith-based social services programs suffered from a lack of oversight, as well as inadequate safeguards against discrimination. More recently, the focus of the controversy surrounding the faith-based initiative has involved questions about whether to allow publicly-funded groups to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
The faith-based initiative was, in many ways, born in Texas. One of the earliest efforts to implement these policies on a large scale was launched in Texas in 1997 under then-Governor George W. Bush, an early and outspoken champion of these policies. The original Texas efforts included policies that funded faith-based organizations with state tax dollars, loosened regulations and licensing of faith-based providers, and permited providers to discriminate openly in hiring practices. The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund published one of the earliest studies on the faith-based initiative, evaluating the first five years of the Texas experiment. (Read TFNEF's 2002 report here.) TFNEF's study foreshadowed many of the issues that would later emerge on the national stage, finding it to be a troubled enterprise for houses of worship, taxpayers and people in need alike.
TFNEF's research uncovered evidence that Texas programs:
- allowed tax dollars to fund religious activities and buy program supplies like Bibles and violated the religious freedom of people in need;
- forced clients into sectarian programs with no secular alternative;
- forced clients to engage in religious activities as a condition of receiving services; and
- resulted in preferential treatment for religious providers in government contracting opportunities.
The problems identified in this report ultimately convinced the Texas Legislature to rescind many of the policy changes made in Texas.
While attempts to expand these programs in Texas have largely stalled in recent years, TFN continues to monitor the implementation of the faith-based initiative in Texas.