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Diverse group reports consensus on 38 faith-based recommendations

WASHINGTON (BP)–A widely diverse group of religious and civil liberties leaders, including a Southern Baptist church-state specialist, issued nearly 40 consensus recommendations April 10 to further the efforts of faith-based and community organizations in assisting America’s needy.

The 26-member Working Group on Human Needs and Faith-based and Community Initiatives agreed on 38 recommendations designed to increase government and private funds to combat poverty, to enhance public-private cooperation to provide social services and to strengthen protections for religious liberty. The participants, who worked for 10 months on the report, ranged from representatives of liberal organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way and the National Council of Churches to conservative evangelical groups such as the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Prison Fellowship and Teen Challenge.

The working group’s recommendations include:

— Expanded funds from government and private sources to meet needs;

— Laws that encourage giving to charities by individuals and corporations;

— Government protection for the religious rights of faith-based organizations, as well as beneficiaries of publicly funded programs;

— Transparency by government agencies about the requirements for faith-based organizations and transparency by FBOs with government and beneficiaries about the religious nature of their programs and policies;

— Government neutrality toward faith-based and community organizations;

— Government responsibility for ensuring public funds are not used for “proselytization, religious instruction or worship;”

— Separation of privately funded religious exercises in time and space from government-funded activities in the same organization;

— Administrative separation between the financial bookkeeping of publicly funded programs and that of houses of worship;

— The establishment by religious congregations of separate 501(c)(3) organizations, when practical, to provide government-funded services;

— Non-discrimination by FBOs toward participants in their programs, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Harris Wofford, chairman of the working group and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, called it a significant accomplishment that people “with very divergent viewpoints” agreed on such recommendations.

“We quickly found agreement on the critical need to help America’s neediest citizens,” he said in a written statement released at a Washington briefing. “The hard work was reaching consensus on how to do it. Now we have in place a consensus on some of the concrete steps required for making it happen.”

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the working group, said the report “provides a valuable service in helping Americans understand the considerable degree of common ground on this issue among very diverse groups of Americans, including the belief that ‘religious faith is a powerful force in our society’ and that it needs to be connected ‘more firmly to the work of social regeneration.'”

Land said he believes the statement will assist two groups the most. “First, lawyers doing pro bono work for their churches or other faith-based organizations will have a document more succinct and accessible than any previously existing to guide them through the issues involved in applying for government funds and how to defend themselves from separationist critics,” Land said in a written statement. “Second, this document will be of considerable assistance to government bureaucrats trying to figure out what is allowable and what isn’t.”

Land and Steve McFarland, vice president for public affairs of Prison Fellowship International, were particularly pleased with the result of the final recommendation, which calls for a statement of agreement on the current law regarding employment practices involving FBOs and government funds.

The “agreed statement” contains 12 findings of current law, followed by, in most cases, at least one point in dispute among the working group members. The initial point includes: “Allowing a faith-based organization to choose staff to carry out its mission who subscribe to the creed and practices of its faith is a fundamental aspect of the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. Important questions do remain about the breadth of this right, especially where government funding is involved.” The issue in dispute is: “How courts may interpret the scope of this right.”

“[T]hree-quarters of the statements of settled law in the document clearly support faith-based organizations being able to hire co-religionists,” Land said.

It is good news that the members of the working group agreed “to a dozen legal milestones,” McFarland said at the briefing. “The agreed statement is good news for the needy, and it’s good news” for FBOs that try to meet their needs, he said.

Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn said at the briefing he was satisfied the statement “annunciates what federal law exists, whether each of us likes it or not.”

The working group had reached common ground “while acknowledging there is still some quicksand in the area,” Lynn said.

“It is important to note that in the [agreed statement], the formula that the ‘statement, arrived at by consensus, on what is fairly settled current law and what is still in dispute among us,’ is of critical significance,” Land said. “What is still in dispute refers to what is in dispute among the working group participants, not an agreement that it is in dispute in law. Many of us on differing sides would argue that these issues are disputed by various participants but are not necessarily disputed law by the courts.

“Even with the significant divergence acknowledged in the last ‘agreed statement’ section, the considerable identification of common ground delineated by the document serves a very constructive educational purpose,” Land said.

Among other members of the working group were Ronald Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; John Castellani, director of Teen Challenge; Richard Foltin, director of legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Eileen Lindner, the NCC’s deputy general secretary; Elliot Mincberg, PFAW’s vice president and legal director; David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Saperstein and Land joined together on an April 10 letter to Congress in support of the Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, a faith-based bill approved the day before by the Senate. The bill would accomplish some of the recommendations presented by the working group, including provide a tax deduction for non-itemizers. Sixteen others, including some members of the working group, signed on to the letter.

Land and 14 other members of the group also were participants in an initial working group on the issue that presented a report in January 2002. That document, “Finding Common Ground,” and the latest report, “Harnessing Civic and Faith-based Power to Fight Poverty,” may be accessed on the Internet at www.working-group.org.

The Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution organization in Washington, guided the working group in its discussions. SCG is a partner with the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The roundtable is a project of the Rockefeller Institute of Government with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.