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The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the government from advancing or endorsing religion or becoming entangled in religious affairs. Any time the government is involved in funding religious institutions, constitutional concerns arise. The Supreme Court has traditionally ruled that direct funding of religion is unconstitutional.  However, tax exemption for religious and secular non-profit organizations-where no money is transferred from the government to the religious organization-is usually constitutionally permissible. Religious entities that receive government funding for their programs should ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to protect themselves and the beneficiaries they serve.

Government funding of social services

Religious entities have long partnered with government to provide social services under the same rules that apply to other nonprofits.  Some legislative proposals to increase government funding to religious providers of social services alter the way religious entities and the government have traditionally cooperated and blur important lines between church and state. Whether pursued under the guise of a "faith-based initiative" or expansion of "charitable choice," many such proposals allow government funding of houses of worship and other pervasively religious entities, thereby threatening religious liberty. Cooperation between religious organizations and government should be pursued cautiously.

Charitable choice is a specific legislative initiative that allows government to fund social service ministries of pervasively religious organizations, including churches, synagogues and mosques. It has been enacted in only a few federal programs, but attempts to expand it are part of what is often referred to as the "faith-based initiative," which has been pursued through both legislation and administrative action. Under these proposals, financial support is given to entities that cannot or do not separate the social services they provide from religious activity.

The BJC opposes charitable choice because it poses risks that are unnecessary, harmful to religion, and unconstitutional. Government money is followed by government regulation, making it harder for the church to remain autonomous and to perform its mission.


Vouchers for private, religious schools - whether called "school choice" or "opportunity scholarships," implemented broadly or in select areas - amount to government support of religion. By funding pervasively religious institutions, vouchers promote religion and violate the consciences of those taxpayers who disagree with religious teachings of the schools. Vouchers are bad for the schools, too - by receiving government money they become slaves to government regulation rather than independent voices of religious principles and are open to excessive government entanglement with religion.

Concerns about government funding of religion are reflected in the debates over school vouchers and the "charitable choice" aspects of the "faith-based initiatives."

Many Baptists have long opposed vouchers as violations of the "no aid" to religion principle.  Should not religious education and ministries be voluntary and supported by those who seek it?  Using vouchers to pass tax dollars through the pockets of parents does not alter the fact that tax dollars are paid directly to the coffers of pervasively religious schools, which advances the religious teachings of the schools.  The Supreme Court, however, in Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) ruled otherwise by a five to four vote.  The Court held that, at least where vouchers are neutral on their face (i.e., they do not apply only to religious schools) and where parents have sufficient choices about where to "spend their vouchers" so that the government does not create incentives to choose religious schools, the Establishment Clause and the "no aid" principle are not violated.

These objections do not mean that religious organizations should not have a role in cooperating with government in providing social services.  Religiously affiliated organizations (that do not integrate religion into their programming) have long cooperated with government in ways that respect constitutional principles and preserve the autonomy of religious organizations.  Concern for church-state relations means finding thoughtful ways of participating in efforts to improve social services without violating the constitution and our commitment to religious liberty.

Articles | Faith-based office discusses religious hiring discrimination
Articles | Obama rounds out appointments to faith council
Resources | Vouchers
Resources | Government funding of social services
Articles | After decision, questions remain about government speech vs. Establishment Clause principles
Articles | Executive order an important start, but the 'how' is missing
Articles | Advisory panel includes friends of BJC
Press Statement | Obama details plans for White House Faith-based office, panel of advisers
Articles | Legal questions remain as Obama overhauls faith-based effort
Articles | At finish, Bush Faith-based Initiative gets mixed reviews
News | Government Funding
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Groups Turning to State Law to Make Claims Against Use of "Under God"
Federal courts have consistently ruled constitutional the use of "Under God" in public school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2010, for example, the 9th Circuit held that the phrase is not a prayer, but instead an acknowledgement of our "founders' political philos...
Louisiana Legislator Pulls State Book Bill
On second thought, Louisiana State Representative Thomas Carmody has decided to end his bid to make the Holy Bible the official state book, just ahead of a scheduled vote of the House yesterday. The Times-Picayune has more: The bill had become a distraction, he said. ... Initially, ...