The issue of funding faith-based public services is simpler than some would think. We are not talking about the gamut of faith- related services. Faith-linked programs, run by or in religious facilities, have been providing effective community services with public money for years. They should continue.
Faith-filled programs have rejected public funding, or should not get it, because they mandate religious participation as a condition of receiving services. Besides, most of them do not want to render unto Caesar. That leaves faith-based programs. The question is, should faith-based programs, those that demonstrate but don’t mandate faith, be permitted to use public money to do public good?
Faith-linked programs draw little fire. When I oversaw Head Start as U.S. commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, a substantial number of our programs were located in churches. When I was commissioner of youth in Massachusetts, some of the most effective and valued contractors in the state were Catholic Charities, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Christian Children’s Home.
No one complained in these cases or in countless others around the nation because the services provided were not entwined in faith.
Faith-filled programs require religious commitment and conversion on the part of those served. Faith is a prerequisite for participation. Clearly in this case church and state are not separated if public funds are involved. Most of these institutions reject Caesar’s coin outright or refuse the restrictions that come with it.
That leaves the middle ground: the faith-based programs. Faith is neither a prerequisite nor a mandatory element of these programs. It is, however, openly practiced in ways that are closely linked to the program. The Valley, which operates in space provided by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, deals with some of the toughest kids in Harlem. The program, which receives public and foundation funds, includes intensive mentoring, job training, GED work and a weekly Grace Circle. John Bess, who heads the program, says that the Grace Circle is not required, but that it sustains him personally and that most of the kids wouldn’t miss it.
The Children’s Trust Neighborhood Initiative serves one of the most broken areas of the District of Columbia. It provides an array of standard social services but begins each day with a voluntary prayer. Its clients often turn to faith for solace and promise in the midst of personal and family pain.
Mentors for Brooklyn’s juvenile offenders are drawn from local congregations. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and his staff gathered a broad-based group to design the program and made sure that nonsectarian alternatives were provided. The experience to date? Mentors coming from congregations are reliable, kind . . . and they stay.
These are just a few of the dozens of examples we have gathered over the past three years of publicly valued services being provided by people who live and witness their faith but do not impose it as a condition of help. These programs meet real needs. We need their help; what do we do about their faith?
Let me be clear. They need to meet the same rules as other not- for-profits. Their work must not be taken on faith but on results: Are at-risk kids staying in school, addicts off drugs, parolees out of prison?
But each of us must ask himself: Would I be there for the troubled and the troubling — the juvenile returning from an institution, the violently angry adult? Can I endure the anger and the pain? Can I live my faith but not compel others to do so?
There are precious few of us who can answer yes. For those who can, I say, let them keep their faith as they go about the public good.
*This editorial written by John A. Calhoun originally appeared in August 29, 2001, edition of The Washington Post.