Should Faith-Based Charities Be Eligible for Government Dollars?

An effort to repeal Oklahoma's Blaine Amendment last week failed.

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A church food pantry
Steven Depolo / Flickr

Is allowing public dollars, in the form of grants and scholarships, to flow to faith-based organizations a violation of the Establishment Clause? Or does making religious groups ineligible for money that is available to secular groups an infringement on the former's First Amendment rights?

Amid the excitement of the presidential election, this was the little-noticed conundrum facing voters in Oklahoma last week. That state, like some 37 others, has what's known as a Blaine Amendment on the books forbidding public money from going to faith-based charities and schools. A proposal on the ballot would have repealed that provision, making the Sooner State the first to do away with a Blaine Amendment.

The measure, Ballot Question 790, ultimately failed. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Unlike the conflict between preventing private discrimination and protecting religious liberty, which I think ought to be easy to resolve (only the latter value is embedded in the Constitution, after all), this question is arguably tricky. Our founding documents make clear the government isn't supposed to offer direct support to any one religion. But they're also clear that the government is not permitted to punish institutions just for practicing certain beliefs.

One of the groups urging people to vote yes in Oklahoma was The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who pointed out that Blaine Amendments can hurt people on the ground since, in many cases, the best and most effective charitable organizations—from food pantries and soup kitchens to prisoner re-entry programs and drug rehab centers—are affiliated with churches, synagogues, and mosques. If these service providers are preventing from applying for grant money, the money will go to alternative providers that may not get as much bang out of each buck as their faith-affiliated counterparts, who have often been in the charitable business a lot longer.

Supporters of the ballot question also noted that the Blaine Amendment in Oklahoma has been used to push "a series of ugly lawsuits by secular groups against parents of disabled children." In a nutshell, the lawsuits say families should not be allowed to use vouchers to send their special-needs children to sectarian schools that offer programs designed to serve kids with disabilities. That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

On the other side of this issue, the American Civil Liberties Union described the ballot measure as a "dangerous and misguided attempt by politicians to strip away one of our most fundamental protections." Faith-based institutions that do take public dollars—there is no federal Blaine Amendment—are required to segregate those funds and ensure they aren't used for proselytization or worship. But supporters of the rule don't think that's enough, and perhaps they have a point: Money is fungible, is it not? When an evangelical Christian charity gets taxpayer dollars to provide a certain service, doesn't that free the group up to take whatever funds would otherwise have been used for the charitable purpose and reallocate them to more explicitly religious pursuits?

As libertarians, we may be asking why public funding should be made available to any private groups, be they faith-based or secular. If we left it to individuals and organizations to decide where to donate their money, it would eliminate the need to decide whether or not religiously affiliated charities should be disqualified from seeking government support.

But of course, that isn't a live proposal at the moment. Too few Americans support doing away with government financing of social services. Even if we can't privatize the funding stream, though—and let's be honest, when was the last time the government stopped paying for something?—maybe the next best option from a free market perspective is to get the provision out of the hands of bureaucrats and into the hands of people who really know the communities they're serving.

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  1. Should Faith-Based Charities Be Eligible for Government Dollars?

    /looking through the constitution to see where the government is authorized to give tax money to any charities

    /fails to find it

    /gives Stephanie a spanking

    1. She did say:

      As libertarians, we may be asking why public funding should be made available to any private groups, be they faith-based or secular.

      1. He just was looking for a reason to give a spanking.

        1. What does this article about spanking Stephanie have to do with government spending?

        2. The Penguin is wise and all-knowing.

        3. Relax, it was just locker-room talk.

      2. I’m pretty sure that question was answered long ago with a resounding no.

      3. I am not asking. They shouldn’t be.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H0MXw8HdyE

    2. basically, faith-based charities should be treated no differently that any others. As long as the money isn’t used for proslelytizing, there shouldn’t be an issue (beyond the issue of whether government should be funding ANY charities).

      1. oops no differently THAN any others.

        (how’s that edit button coming along?)

    3. Given that this is a States money the Constitution is rather irrelevant here. The Constitution might bar it at the Federal level but the States remain free to spend their money how they see fit.

        1. Shut up, I’m trying to spank Stephanie!

          1. Pictures or video or forget it.

            1. Pictures orand video or forget it.

              FTFY

            2. I promise.

          2. Do, or do not. There is no “try”,

      1. Except that the Bill of Rights are incorporated to the states under the 14th Amendment, so Establishment clause issues might apply.

    4. /looking through the constitution to see where the government is authorized to give tax money to any charities

      /fails to find it

      /gives Stephanie a spanking

      Anything not authorized by the Commerce Clause is authorized by the General Welfare Clause. It is known.

  2. I think it should be okay to give money to faith based charities–so long as the money isn’t be used directly to promote someone’s faith.

    I think faith based charities should be extremely reluctant to accept money from the government because the flip side of “no taxation without representation” is “representation comes with taxation”.

    That the people who pay the bills get a say in how their money is spent–is a natural law.

    P.S. Are you going to restrict school vouchers to only being used in non-religious schools?

  3. Fuck you, cut spending!

  4. NO.

    Government shouldn’t have anything to do with charity in any way, shape, or form. There is no constitutional authority for any such involvement.

    -jcr

    1. You know there were a lot of Presidents, up to an including Coolidge, who wrote that in their Veto messages.

      I wish I had been older then.

  5. If we left it to individuals and organizations to decide where to donate their money, it would eliminate the need to decide whether or not religiously affiliated charities should be disqualified from seeking government support.

    PLEASE DON’T FEED THE RACISTS.

  6. I have come to a decision:

    WE SHALL CUT THE GOVT DOLLARS IN HALF!

    1. $.50 pieces?

    2. I’ve seen this movie before you just end up with two immortal eldritch abominations.

  7. Fair or unfair, faith-based charities should avoid money from the government as if it were infected with the plague. Because it is. Once you take the King’s shilling, the King owns your ass. Think you’re under pressure to abandon your religious principles now? Just wait until the federal government effectively controls your budget.

    1. Good point. For example, Title IX wouldn’t have established such a stranglehold over higher education had they not taken the King’s shilling and proceeded henceforth to kiss the ring, and bow and scrape with all the rest.

      Do those who really wish to do good for people want that?

  8. The two-hop path through the government and back to some charitable organization is always going to be less efficient (not to mention more political) than the one-hop from your pocket to the organization of your choice.

    1. Yes. These are two different questions.

      1. Should government be allowed to discriminate against faith-based groups.

      2. Should faith-based groups chain themselves to the government gilded shackle.

      I think it’s possible to think the answers to both questions should be ‘no’.

  9. Oh, or maybe we should be talking about association rights here . . .

    If a religious school doesn’t want to accept any vouchers because they’re concerned about the government using that as an excuse to dictate policy, is that alright?

    If a religious school doesn’t want to accept vouchers–only from openly gay students–is that okay with the courts?

    I doubt it.

    The people who pay the bills get a say in how their money is spent. If you don’t want to have to compromise with the general public, don’t take their money.

    1. And presidential executive orders which sidestep congress because they would never pass are how “the people” get a say in how their money is spent? Our system sucks and the money is in the vicelike grip of a tiny powerful minority of interest groups and their agendas.

      How about this: we do a poll where voters are asked much of their money can be allowed to be given to religious charities etc. We get some percentages, X percent think it’s ok, Y percent opposed. The govt adheres to those restrictions in giving the public their own money back.

      Of course for most of the country, the point of govt taxation is to spend other people’s money not one’s own.

      1. Or we could just let people keep their own money and give it to whatever charity they want.

        1. What an old fashioned idea!

          Just because it built charities, cathedrals, libraries, museums and universities there is no proof that it work like that for real.

          1. ..it would work like…

            damn

  10. OT: For those of you who enjoy using actual data to show how leftist economic arguments are BS, I present a new entry. Like many leftists, amsoc claims that SS is going bankrupt because of insufficient tax money.

    Except that Fedgov revenue growth has outpaced inflation and population growth combined over the past 8, 15, 25, 35, 45, and 55 years. In other words, we absolutely, positively, do not have a revenue problem. Whatsoever.

    See here

    1. It’s always insufficient. By definition.

      It won’t be sufficient until it’s enough to pay his mortgage.

      1. Spoiler alert: he will NEVER pay his mortgage.

  11. Difficult question. I believe in a purely secular government that isn’t controlled by religion(s) but doesn’t control religion(s) either.

    Funding a soup kitchen is not proselytizing. It has a secular outcome, so long as nobody is excluded.

    As with all charities though, nobody can really keep track of where the money goes. A lot of them (secular or otherwise) end up chewing up most of the cash in management and little ends up fulfilling the purpose it was donated for. Standard bureaucratic mire.

    Then it takes more bureaucrats to watch over it all to make sure to keep the pilfering down. Of course, those people can be bribed. Some believe in their righteous cause so much that graft can be overlooked. Who watches the watchers, etc. That all leads to the same massive mess we’ve already got.

    You say “But of course, that isn’t a live proposal at the moment.” Fine, then how do we get it on the table?

  12. As libertarians, we may be asking why public funding should be made available to any private groups, be they faith-based or secular.

    Bingo.

    If the Constitution is your basis, there’s no correct answer to the question posed by the Oklahoma election.

  13. TRUMP IS A FAITH BASED INSTITUTION!

    1. A Trumptastic day to you sir!

  14. If we assume that the governmental entity in question will be providing funds for the alleviation of social ills then it should be allowed provided…

    The money is ONLY used to provide services to an identified group in need
    The money is provided with absolutely no consideration of religious affiliation (that is an atheist group, a Satanist group, a Muslim group, a Christian group, etc would all recieve the exact same funding for providing the exact same service)
    The services are provided to anyone who has need of them regardless of religious affiliation
    There are absolutely no religious components to the provision of the services (for example, a soup kitchen run by a church could not lead the people in a pre meal prayer or have a sermon going on while or immediately after the meals are served)

  15. “As libertarians, we may be asking why public funding should be made available to any private groups, be they faith-based or secular.”

    But to put it in H&R terms, since the pure libertarian solution is unavailable, at the very least the government shouldn’t discriminate against religious institutions because they’re religious.

    And if you say otherwise it’s because you’re an atheistic Communist who wants to put Christians up against a wall and shoot them!

    Ha ha, just kidding, I was applying the same rhetoric I’ve heard on H&R about other “nondiscrimination” issues.

    But seriously, solks: the government shouldn’t be discriminating against religious institutions *or* giving handouts to private groups in general.

    And religious groups should have the firmness *not* to take government subsidies. But as long as the government taxes religious people and uses the money for secular groups, the religious people will argue that they should at least get some of their money back for their own institutions, rather than see their money go to groups they oppose.

    1. I religious charity I sometimes support took $40k in government* funding in 2015, so I am considering no supporting them for a while, until I make sure the trend doesnt continue.

      *I don’t know what government, but I bet it isn’t the US. Which actually makes it more okay to me.

    2. The government will always tax religious people and give the money to secular institutions because the government itself is a secular institution.

      That having been said, the government cannot establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. So a religious charity should be just as eligible for government grants as any other charity; but it cannot use funds from that grant toward religious ends.

      1. Note that I’m distinguishing here between vouchers and grants. That might be a meaningless distinction to some people, and the article is primarily talking about vouchers anyway.

        The best solution is, as always, to let people decide what to do with their own money by not taking it from them.

      2. “The government will always tax religious people and give the money to secular institutions because the government itself is a secular institution.”

        Yeah, but that doesn’t tell us whether the government should be running schools. And that’s a key example of taking tax money from the religious and giving it to those who don’t agree with their beliefs. And since most H&R people would agree that government-run schools are unnecessary, then the decision to take from the religious and give it to nonreligious – perhaps hostile – institutions is not a neutral decision.

        1. And since most H&R people would agree that government-run schools are unnecessary, then the decision to take from the religious and give it to nonreligious – perhaps hostile – institutions is not a neutral decision.

          Agreed, but two wrongs don’t generally make a right. Although the more I think about, the more I’m getting lost in what feels like irrelevant details. Does a religious institution taking government money and also promoting its religion, while not violating the terms of the grant/voucher/whatever under which they received the funds, actually count as the government establishing religion? I would on second thought only say it is if the government restricts what religions it gives money to.

          … but unfortunately this leads us to such fun as government-funded Islamic schools.

    1. Glad I read the comments before linking to that!

  16. OT – He’s cute when he’s angry

    “Here in stage 2 of the grieving process [anger], I?the educated, urban elite?find it hard not to be disappointed in and, in darker moments, openly contemptuous of these Trump voters. This is an unproductive emotional response, granted. It does nothing to assuage their concerns that the world is changing and they are being left behind. And yes, it’s of a piece with the same liberal smugness that turned so many of them off in the first place.

    “In my moments of Vulcan rationality?too few and far between this past week?I understand we need to engage with these folks, to try to persuade them, to conceive economic policies that speak to their needs. But I also fear that the Democratic Party is once again going to soften its embrace of civil rights and social justice to appease them, and that is something I cannot stomach. I would rather lose elections than forfeit principles.

    “So yes, we should reach out to them when we can, persuade them when we can; we should certainly not cordon ourselves off from them and ignore their interests. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that they are the past and we are the future, that we are on the right side of history and they are not.”

    1. ut I also fear that the Democratic Party is once again going to soften its embrace of civil rights and social justice to appease them, and that is something I cannot stomach. I would rather lose elections than forfeit principles.

      Sounds like this guy needs to join the Libertarian party.

      1. Green Party. Except he’s mad at Jill Stein and her voters.

    2. civil rights and social justice

      It cannot be emphasized enough that these are two separate and wholly incompatible ideas.

      1. social justice is not justice.

        I am not sure what it is or even means, honestly.

        1. social justice is the direct opposite of actual justice.

        2. social justice is the direct opposite of actual justice.

        3. social justice is the direct opposite of actual justice.

          1. The elusive triple post. We see it here and now in its natural habitat.

            1. Just the squirrelz feeling it today.

        4. “Social justice” is basically a codeword for reverse-discrimination policies that people don’t want to admit publicly because they sound really hypocritical, especially in the middle of impassioned speeches against racism.

    3. So yes, we should reach out to them when we can, persuade them when we can; we should certainly not cordon ourselves off from them and ignore their interests. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that they are the past and we are the future, that we are on the right side of history and they are not.

      Whatever you tell yourself there pal. The only thing keeping the Democratic party from becoming the Greens is pure racial division and hatred. If blacks and hispanics ever start voting with their interests, you will be in even worse shape than you are now. And I think the future looks more like that than it does some leftist resurgence.

      1. Trump’s number with blacks and latinos are promising. Especially if he can deliver on the economy/jobs.

    4. There’s also the Electoral College?an undemocratic anachronism that gives outsize power to rural whites at the expense of urban minorities

      “I’ve never been a part of a rural white community or an urban ethnic minority but I’m pretty sure that 200 yrs. of history are wrong and that I know what’s best for all of them.”

      *echoes faintly*

  17. The people saying that it is okay for the taxpayers to put strings on money they give to people have a point. Consider, however, something else. Libertarians have long supported school choice and the substitution of vouchers for government run social services. The Libertarian position has always been that while the government should not be providing social services at all, if it is going to do so, it should come in the form of vouchers, so that recipients have the choice of how and where to use the money and the services are to the greatest extent possible provided by the private sector and not government.

    Given that fact, it seems to me that Libertarians ought to be against banning faith based charities from receiving government money, so long as the money is funneled through the recipient. So, the government should not be funding religious schools or soup kitchens and such directly. It should however be providing social services, to the extent it does, in the form of vouchers and the recipients of those vouchers should be free to spend that money anywhere they like, including religious based services. You can’t support “choice” and then turn around and impose some arbitrary restriction on that choice denying the person services they may view as best suited for them.

    I don’t think the Libertarian position here is that difficult to deduce.

    1. I doubt any real libertarians would oppose school vouchers going to religious schools.

      They may oppose the vouchers altogether.

      1. That is my point. If you are going to have vouchers, they should be able to be spent at religious institutions. These amendments prevent that and you wind up with things like the local shithead atheist suing because parents are sending their handicapped kid to a religious school using a state voucher.

    2. Yeah, I mean if the state WANTS to replace welfare with Charity Vouchers I’ll be on board with that.

      I just really doubt we’ll be seeing that discussion in my lifetime.

      1. I doubt that as well. But to the extent it does have vouchers, they should be used wherever the person receiving them chooses.

  18. Should Faith-Based Charities Be Eligible for Government Dollars?

    No. Next question.

    1. What is the point of giving people vouchers if you are going to tell them how they can spend them?

      1. There’s a difference between a voucher and a grant.

        A voucher says “you are entitled to some service, and we are letting you choose how to obtain your entitlement” whereas a grant says “the government wishes to effect some socially beneficial end, and yours is the organization deemed at the time the grant was awarded to be most suited to meeting that end”.

        More succinctly, a voucher is your money. A grant is not.

        1. I think it’s a distinction that Stephanie distinctly fails to make. They are both your money. The grant is closer to being the hypothetical selectively or non-fungible absurdity that John describes.

  19. “Should Faith-Based Charities Be Eligible for Government Dollars?”

    Let’s fix that:

    “Should Charities Be Eligible for Government Dollars?”

    No.

    I mean, TYPICALLY private charities ARE better at helping people, so the Government taking our tax dollars and giving it to them is an IMPROVEMENT on the Government trying to help us itself… but I really doubt the Government’s processes for selecting Charities will be of quality, or unbiased. I have this WEIRD suspicion certain charities like “the Clinton Foundation” would for INEXPLICABLE reasons get preference to other private charities.

    1. HOWEVER an exception:

      If a LIBERAL is asking this question, the answer is ALWAYS YES.

      Because from what I’ve heard Liberals say on the topic of religious organizations, “letting religious charities keep their own money instead of having it stolen by the government” is the EXACT SAME THING to a liberal as “giving the religious charity government money.”

      Seriously EVERY time I hear one of them talk about “taxing religions” they use the term “giving money” to describe the Government not stealing from religions.

    2. TYPICALLY private charities ARE better at helping people

      And, fundamentally, paying your private charity through the government adds non-essential/functional overhead.

      1. ^This. Both coming and going. The government has to skim off some money to administer the program (cut checks, audit the charity, etc). The charity has to use some of that money for government-mandated paperwork – for example does the charity comply with the clean water act and the myriad other acts with which one must comply when one is a government contractor. As noted below, most of the time the money is not outright given so much as the charity acts as a contractor.

        1. It’s the same with insurance. Everytime the govt adds some new piddly shit to the list of required coverage, like acupuncture, nicotine patches, etc., it just means a cut of yet something else goes to the insurance company. It’s a totally unholy alliance. Everyone in the system is lobbying for more govt regulation because they all benefit.

  20. I don’t get it, what does this have to do with Trump?

  21. Why should religion be an interesting criteria? Consider two organizations, one that advocates for tobacco-smoking cessation, and the other against. Or one that advocates for, and the other against, republican democracy. On what grounds should any of these be granted or denied non-profit status, let alone access to state funds?

    If you find yourself in the position of asking what the article’s title does, the only thing that’s sure is that you’ve gone off the rails at some point much earlier in time.

  22. As the article states, and as is often stated in the comments, money is fungible. This argument is generally used when the anti-abortion people are getting all exercised about money flowing to Planned Parenthood. If those Planned Parenthood dollars are fungible, then so are the dollars given to that virtuous religious charity.

    The money is often not given, so much as paid. In the city in which I live homeless services are coordinated by a Catholic charitable organization acting as a contractor for the city government.

  23. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If it’s questionable whether the government giving the money to religious charities violates the establishment clause, then the money shouldn’t be spent in the first place, regardless of the religiosity of the beneficiary.

  24. when was the last time the government stopped paying for something?

    The Illinois government paying lottery winners?

  25. While I am 100% against the government giving any money to charity; I also know that they are going to until the citizenry forces them to stop. Living in this reality I think a bit of direct democracy should be applied. Have the OK State Legislature set a percentage of your income tax they plan to give to charity and then the individual can choose the charity(ies) that will receive the money. That way no SocCon’s tax money goes to Planned Parenthood and no atheist’s money goes to Focus on the Family. And for those that don’t want to give to charity because they need the money, just setup a fake charity like the Clintons did.

  26. Do away with government and lower taxes correspondingly. Then people are free to donate as they choose.
    As an interim measure, figure the amount of tax subsidizing the charities and allow people to designate their OWN giving. This is how the “Combined Federal Campaign” work(ed?) on military bases. Rather than have a hundred charities canvassing the base, there was ONE campaign with 100 choices.

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