Faith-Based Initiative

Religious organizations have long  been recepients of federal funds.  However, since the advent of the Faith-Based Initiative, the responsibilities of faith-based organizations to adhere to basic civil rights policies has been eroded.  The Faith-Based Initiative has allowed organizations to cirumvent existing law and discriminate in their hiring practices, on the basis of religion.  Congressman Scott believes that this is a dangerous precedent.  He believes that the policy of no discrimination in federal programs is a fundamental element of our civil rights strategy - if we fail to enforce civil rights in federal programs, we lose our moral authority to impose those laws on private employers who may be devoutly religious. With the troublesome Bush policies still intact, employment discrimination will continue. Because religious discrimination is explicitly allowed under the Faith-Based Initiative, there are other implications for discrimination that also take place under the guise of religious discrimination. Many churches and faith-based institutions are ethnically and racially homogeneous. Where religious discrimination is allowed, it is difficult to ensure that racial discrimination is not also occurring. In addition, religious discrimination can also lead to discrimination based on sex.

History of the Faith-Based Initiative

In August of 1963, thousands of people gathered to march on Washington to urge the adoption of federal civil rights protections. Among their demands were an end to discrimination in the workplace and that federal funds be withheld from any agency which practices discrimination with those funds. The march laid the groundwork for monumental civil rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

When Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year, it became the most comprehensive legislation to achieve equal rights and protect citizens from discrimination.Section 703 (a) of the Act made it unlawful for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges or employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Title VII however, makes exemptions for church groups and faith-based organizations, allowing them to discriminate in hiring practices in order to maintain their organization’s integrity. This had traditionally referred to the actions of the organization while using its own money.

Both before and after the Civil Rights Act, Presidents throughout the past 60 years have used Executive Orders to strengthen federal anti-discrimination policy. On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that banned discrimination by defense contractors based on race, religion, color or national origin. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 was the first to prohibit employment discrimination and marked the beginning of fair employment practices in the United States. These protections against employment discrimination were expanded by subsequent Presidents. Executive Order 11246, signed by President Johnson in 1965, expanded the prohibitions against employment discrimination to all government contractors, not just defense contractors. Every President of the United States since 1965 has enforced these Executive Orders. Over time, various civil rights laws were passed that contained similar prohibitions against discrimination and employment based on race, religion, color, national origin or sex. None of these Executive Orders affected the religious exemption set forth in Title VII, but they drew the separation between Church and State so that federal taxpayer money was not used to fund religious activity and discrimination based on religion was not permitted while using taxpayer dollars.

In the 1990s, then-Senator John Ashcroft created the concept known as ‘Charitable Choice’ during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept altered existing law to permit taxpayer-financed social service funding of houses of worship in a few welfare programs.

This approach represented a radical change. In the past, government sometimes contracted with organizations such as Catholic Charities or United Jewish Communities to provide services, but safeguards were kept in place to protect the integrity of the groups and the interests of taxpayers. Houses of worship did not contract directly with the government; rather, religious institutions created separate entities (usually 501(c)(3)s) to handle public funds and did not incorporate religion into the publicly funded program. Further, Johnson’s Executive Order had maintained safeguards against employment discrimination in these programs receiving taxpayer dollars.

President Clinton signed these Charitable Choice provisions into law but issued signing statements indicating that his Administration would not "permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally-funded program] activities" because such funding would violate the Constitution. In short, the Clinton Administration interpreted the provisions as being constrained by the constitutional mandates that prohibit the direct funding of houses of worship and government-funded employment discrimination. No federal money went to organizations that were pervasively sectarian, no money went to any organization with the Title VII exemption, and therefore no one could exercise discrimination using these funds while Clinton was President.

Under the Bush Administration, Charitable Choice was vastly expanded through a series of Executive Orders. In 2001, Executive Orders 13198 and 13199 created and set out organizational guidelines for a White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.Executive Orders 13280 (2002), 13342 (2004), and 13397 (2006) mandated that the departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, Veteran Affairs, and Homeland Security, the Agency for International Development and the Small Business Administration all establish a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2002, the most controversial Executive Order was issued – Executive Order 13279 – which made it easier for churches and other faith-based organizations to receive federal money by letting them circumvent certain anti-discrimination laws. Under the umbrella of the Faith-Based Initiative, the Bush administration began allowing discrimination with federal money for the first time since the 1960s.

For decades, religious organizations have been providing social services, including in some cases with the use of government funds, without the Faith-Based Initiative. The fundamental differences between the Faith-Based Initiative and the long-standing legal provisions regarding faith-based organizations’ participation are: (1) allowing proselytization during a secular, government-funded program; and (2) permitting employment discrimination with federal funds. Any program that could be federally funded under the Faith-Based Initiative could have been funded before it if the sponsoring organization agreed not to discriminate in employment and not to proselytize. Moreover, no religious organization has stated to Congress that it needs to be able to proselytize or discriminate in order to run a successful program. There has been a general consensus that proselytization with federal funds violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, but the issue of whether discrimination with federal funds should be permitted remains hotly debated.

During the 2008 campaign, President Obama said that he would not allow discrimination with federal money, unlike the Bush Administration. However, on February 5th 2009, when the Obama Administration unveiled its new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, reversals of Bush’s controversial policies were notably absent. Joshua DuBois, who was originally appointed to lead the Office, stated that claims of discrimination would be investigated "on a case-by-case basis."  Since then, no other action has been taken to address this issue. 

Press on the Faith-Based Initiative 



Administration Officials' Responses 

  • Attorney General Eric Holder, Before the House Judiciary Committee [June 7, 2014] -VIDEO (1:11:20)
  • Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department Thomas Perez, Before the House Judiciary Committee [July 26, 2012] - VIDEO (44:06)
  • Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Before the House Education and the Workforce Committee [March 28, 2012] - VIDEO (2:13:00)
  • Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department Thomas Perez, Before the House Judiciary Committee [June 1, 2011] - TRANSCRIPT  (pp. 47-49)
  •  Secretary of Health and Human Servies Kathleen Sebelius, Before the House Education and the Workforce Committee [May 5, 2011] - VIDEO (1:46:00)
  • Attorney General Eric Holder, Before the House Judiciary Committee [May 3, 2011] - VIDEO (00:58:18)
  • Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Before the House Education and the Workforce Committee [March 9, 2011] - VIDEO (02:17:22)
  • Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department Thomas Perez, Before the House Judiciary Committee [December 3, 2009] - TRANSCRIPT 

More on Faith-Based Initiative

October 8, 2020 Press Release
WASHINGTON, DC – Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03) demanded answers from Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Perdue about a troubling report that some faith-based organizations participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which has already been plagued by mismanagement, are subjecting participants to unsolicited religious activity. The reports include instances of faith-based organizations placing religious messages in food boxes, directing the distribution of food boxes to church members, using the food boxes to solicit donations and encouraging families to pray before receiving food boxes.
June 4, 2018 Press Release
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03) issued the following statement after the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: “The Supreme Court’s narrow ruling did not address the core question of whether or not the couple was discriminated against based on sexual orientation. By avoiding the heart of the matter, the Court is allowing a dangerous level of uncertainty to continue to persist. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed to protect people from illegal discrimination from businesses that open their doors to the public.
July 13, 2017 Press Release
WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the support of leaders from the civil rights, social justice and faith communities, Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-04) and Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03), Ranking Member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, today reintroduced legislation to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Do No Harm Act would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. It comes in response to continued efforts across the country to cite religious belief as grounds to undermine Civil Rights Act protections, limit access to healthcare, and refuse service to minority populations.
June 15, 2017 Press Release
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03) received the National Visibility Award from the Secular Coalition of America in recognition of his leadership in protecting the First Amendment, religious liberty, and separation of church and state. “I am honored to receive the National Visibility Award from the Secular Coalition of America,” said Rep. Scott. “As a defender of the Constitution’s First Amendment and an Episcopalian, I can attest to the power of working with people of many faiths and secularists who understand how reason, critical thinking, and empathy has helped our nation face its adversities and achieve great things.
June 12, 2017 Press Release
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Bobby Scott issued the following statement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia: “In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving were charged with violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. This injustice launched a courageous legal challenge that culminated in the Supreme Court ruling on this day, 50 years ago, that the United States would no longer allow race-based restrictions on the right to marry. The Loving Court unanimously stated that marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ confirming that America is a place of equality and freedom.
February 23, 2016 Press Release
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) and House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice Ranking Member Steve Cohen (D-TN) issued a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to follow-up on a request to instruct the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to review and reconsider an opinion issued on June 29, 2007. The opinion has been interpreted to permit federally funded faith-based organizations to use the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to override statutory employment nondiscrimination laws.
May 17, 2013 Press Release
WASHINGTON, DC Today, Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (VA-03) questioned Attorney General Eric Holder during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Department of Justice. ...
February 14, 2013 Press Release
WASHINGTON, DC Today, the House of Representatives considered and passed H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013. Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-VA)...
February 13, 2013 Floor Statements
Mr. SCOTT of Virginia: Madam Speaker, I rise in opposition to H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which would add ''houses of worship'' to the list of eligible en...