Acton Institute Powerblog

The Fight over Charitable Choice

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Howard Friedman, at his ever-noteworthy Religion Clause blog, reports on the brewing battle over charitable choice language in the US Senate. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which includes Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is pushing for language in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Act of 2000 to be removed that allows for faith-based charities receiving government funds to limit their hiring practices along confessional/denominational borders.

This is just the latest in the long affair to determine in what ways the federal government can subsidize private explicitly faith-based charitable work. The Washington Times reports, “Under the Civil Rights Act, religious groups are allowed to only hire people of their particular faith. The battle erupts over what should happen when these groups accept federal dollars.”

A correlative question is not only whether faith-based initiatives receiving federal funding ought to be staffed by like-minded religious folks, but to what extent that program can then implement explicitly religious content.

It’s no surprise that the substance abuse legislation is the first target of the CARD alliance push to remove hiring limits. Original research published by the Acton Institute, growing out of our work with the Samaritan Guide, found that “a program’s faith element relates to the people they serve and the type of help they provide, as programs with more explicit and mandatory faith-related elements are likely to be substance-abuse programs.”

Thus, it makes sense that CARD would first target the areas most likely to have explicit faith-based elements in their quest to secularize charitable choice.

Friedman writes, “Some say that removing the language from SAMHSA would be a first step toward eliminating similar provisions from various other federal programs as well.” With the most difficult hurdle out of the way, the path would be laid wide open for similar provisions to be excised from legislation affecting other areas of charitable work.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Dale Milne

    As a child, I don’t remember many government programs that provided ‘charity’. I got my teeth worked on, but they weren’t allowed to use any pain-killer because they government wouldn’t pay for it. We could say, the government “didn’t care” about our pain.

    The church we belonged to visited people and found out what their needs were, and where it (actually _they_, the people of the church, not the building itself) could, they would provide the needed things. Need in this case was mostly food, sometimes clothing, even (though rarely) funds for special needs. They just brought it! No forms to fill out, no lines to wait in. The families were truly “blessed” (materially) by the charity (spiritual) of the people who provided charity through churches.

    People donated to the churches so that they could provide these needed things. Not everybody donated. And not everyone who did donate donated to the same church. Our church was a bit better than others, in my opinion, in its ability to provide food and clothing.

    The churches even had ‘counselors’ to help a person find a job, and employers would let those counselors know when they had a position open; sometimes they didn’t really have a position open, but would accept another work for the sake of employing an unemployed person.

    Unlike “faith-based” organizations, which I understand to be a euphemism, necessitated by the dicta of political correctness (i.e., language fascism), for _churches_ and _church-based charities_, the government does not take voluntary donations for use to provide services to the needy. What the government does is take money from everyone, including many of the needy. Then, if the government – the bureaucrats who are paid to do this – decides that a particular person or family _deserves_ their help, they require the needy person to stand in line, fill out a form, and accept a legalistically defined amount of help.

    But the government is _not_ charitable. By definition, it cannot be, because it has no resources to begin with. The only resources the government has are those which it takes from the people. From the people who, if the government had not taken the resources, in many cases would direct them to charities which are more efficient and more generous than our would-be “Big Brother”.

    The government gives nothing because it has nothing of its own to give. All the government can do is to _return_ something that the people have given it. But by the time the resource has worked its way up the tax-chain and down the welfare-fence, as with even natural resources (though in greater amounts than the natural resources), the resource has suffered spillage, SPOILage, and siphonage!

    States (the Soviet Union, GDR, Albania, North Korea) which have “limit[ed] their hiring practices along confessional/denominational borders” have in every single case performed miserably. In the long run, they performed a disservice rather than a service. They discriminated according to political persuasion as well as according to faith. They not only forced organizations to hire people of the government’s own choosing, but they prohibited factories, schools, and charities from hiring those whom the latter wanted to hire.

    If CARD succeeds in the heritage it brings from its forebears in, and as a lobbyist for the systems of, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Albania, North Korea, and Cuba, not only our charities and faith, but also our economy, factories, farms, schools, and political institutions will go down the same road of misery, poverty, unproductiveness, and lies as they have in those sad excuses for nationhood.