Faith-based conundrum

Rick Cohen & Naomi Tacuyan

Bushs faith-based agenda, clearly embedded in the administrations 2006 budget, is pushing an already cash-strapped nonprofit sector into an even more precarious position.

While the presidents fiscal 2006 budget slashes and eliminates over 154 programs, it increases funding for the administrations Compassion Capital Fund initiatives, not only at the Department of Health and Human Services, but also in other agencies such as Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice.

In tune with the Compassion Capital Fund song, the administration has also been positioning the nonprofit sector as a vehicle for its faith-based agenda.

Unfortunately for the sector, not many national nonprofits have protested.

Instead they have been more than willing to play along, hoping that some slice of the faith-based scheme will generate extra revenue for secular groups, even if the new bulk of tax-exempt charitable giving ends up with religious organizations.

Perhaps even, the nonprofits strategy reflects crafty politics: If they protest weakly for the time being, perhaps the conservatives in Congress wont press for issues such as increased government oversight and strengthened regulations.

In the meantime, recent congressional actions are slowly but surely helping to carve out the nonprofit sectors role in this dangerous agenda. Alas, only the advocates concerned about church-state separation and civil and labor rights have protested.

The broader sector leadership has ducked.

In January, Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina introduced H.R. 235, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005, which allows churches and other houses of worship to keep their tax-exempt status even if they engage in electioneering on church property or through church programming.

In early March, the House passed H.R. 27, the Job Training Improvement Act of 2005, which although reaffirming the nations commitment against hiring discrimination, simultaneously exempted faith-based religious organizations with job-training contracts from that requirement.

Cash-strapped job-training nonprofits dependent on shrinking federal resources may be unlikely to jeopardize their relationship with the Department of Labor, and challenge this policy, but the so-called nonprofit infrastructure leadership could — and didnt.

In step with the release of the fiscal 2006 budget, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania rolled out the Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda, the Senates supposed panacea for poverty.

The first item on this agenda was the CARE Act, formerly known as H.R. 7 in the 108th Congress, which draws on the proposed non-itemizer tax deduction and the IRA rollover to generate increased giving to service providers.

Even as secular nonprofits stay silent in hope, there is pretty reliable evidence that the majority of non-itemizer giving, like most individual giving, will go to and mostly benefit religious organizations.

While a smaller coalition of groups is protesting this agenda, the nonprofit leadership needs to step up to the plate and call the faith-based agenda for what it really is — assaults on fundamental civil-rights protections in federal programs and a manipulation of our nonprofit sector to go along with the administration in order to survive.

Rick Cohen is executive director and Naomi Tacuyan is communications associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

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