This website is an archive and will no longer be updated. For continuing research and analysis of faith-based social services, turn to the
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

A Primer on Faith-Based Social Services

What is an "FBO"?
What is "Charitable Choice"?
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)

What is an "FBO"?

To appreciate the status of faith-based social service in America, it is important first to understand what defines a faith-based organization -- known as an "FBO" -- and to explore the theories upon which their services are built. FBOs typically have either a current or past affiliation with a religious denomination; the tenets of that faith animate the work of the organization. The managers and staff of these organizations often, but not always, share the same faith and are motivated and trained to provide service in accord with their beliefs. It is likely, though not necessarily the case, that FBO services are provided in physical structures used at other times for religious purposes, and which may be imbued by and contain the sounds and symbols of that faith.

For some FBOs, faith is manifest in the act of service itself, conspicuous in the compassion inherent in the way work is performed. For others, there are programmatic elements, which may include prayer, the teaching of religious values, studying religious texts, and worship. These elements may be implied, rather than explicit -- integrated within an FBO's services or segregated -- and may either be mandatory or voluntary as part of a given service.

Faith-based organizations can be congregation-based, independent religiously-affiliated nonprofits, large national faith-affiliated social service providers, and coalitions or intermediaries, as defined below.

A congregation-based FBO is a house of worship that directly provides social services, without doing so through a distinct and separate organization. A congregation-based FBO may be a church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious institution. The social services offered by congregation-based FBOs are often, though not necessarily, provided at the same location used for religious worship, with direct religious elements within program activities or the environment (presence of religious symbols, icons, and the like) in which they are conducted. The distinguishing feature of FBOs in this category is that they do not have an institutional/organizational separation between the entity providing the social service and the house of worship itself. That public funding could go via contract or grant to social services provided by such organizations - provided they meet secular goals through secular activities - is a development that came about in the late 1990s and 2000s.

A local religiously-affiliated nonprofit is a social service provider that has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and is related to a religious community. Organizations of this type may at the very least have religious roots in their origin or ideology, although the services they provide may or may not have explicit religious content. A religiously-affiliated nonprofit may be local, if it is affiliated with an individual congregation, for example, or regional in its geographical service area.

Religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations also include groups that number among the largest providers of social services in the nation. Multi-state or national faith-based service organizations are usually quite secular in their programming, but may have a shared religious ideology visible in their mission statements, hiring decisions, volunteer recruitment, board membership, funding sources or other services provided. FBOs of this type, especially those providing a variety of social services to a range of clients, tend to be older and have an established history of providing social services with the assistance of government contracts. Examples of large multi-service FBOs are Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services, Lutheran Social Services, Salvation Army, and Volunteers of America. Comparatively fewer of the large national religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations provide a singular service to a specific population. Examples include Habitat for Humanity, Prison Fellowship, Teen Challenge and Youth for Christ. FBOs of this subtype are more likely to contain explicitly religious elements in their activities.

Faith-based coalitions are composed of a number of organizations, some or all of which are faith-based themselves. Such coalitions are usually formed to address a deficit in a service area, and sometimes share core religious traditions but may also be interfaith in nature.

Faith-based intermediaries are organizations that primarily serve to support the work of FBOs; typically, aiding FBOs that are smaller or more local. Aid provided by faith-based intermediaries usually takes the form of training and other technical assistance on operations, finances, and administration. Often, they may serve in an umbrella or fiduciary role, acting as a conduit and intermediary manager between larger, outside sources of financial support and small FBOs operating at the community level.

Ample research has been conducted on the role of religiosity or organic religion (attending religious services or being brought up in an observant home is associated with a variety of better outcomes for health, for example, though some question remains about whether sufficient controls have been in place to determine if this is due to religion per se or other individual, family or environmental factors). But only a small handful of studies have been conducted to test for the effectiveness of programmatic religion or of faith-based social services. These studies typically: cover too few organizations to support rigorous quantitative analysis; cover very narrow geographic areas; fail to control for differences in approach, population served or environment that affect results; and tend not to separate effects of organic from programmatic religion. Importantly, as of December 2008, no comparative study has tracked effectiveness and connected measures of performance with statistical rigor to underlying program theories that relate to the faith character of the organization and the services delivered.

Having a solid measure of "faith" integration within FBOs was a necessary predicate for this research. In much of the popular and academic discourse, FBOs are treated as an undifferentiated mass, ignoring important distinctions about the manner and degree of religious character that may be present in the services and activities they provide. Following careful review of the literature and extensive consultation with leading scholars and practitioners, Roundtable staff developed and refined a Faith Integration Scale that places FBOs along a continuum ranging from those that are indistinguishable from secular organizations to those that have a high degree of religious integration in their mission, identity, programs or services.

The instrumentation of the Faith Integration Scale was developed in consultation with a number of outside scholars, including Steve Smith, Thom Jeavons, Steve Monsma, Ron Sider, Diana Garland, Mark Chaves, and Heidi Unruh, and it was discussed at length and pre-tested by the Working Group on Human Needs and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The FIS received strong praise, and has been adopted for use by fellow researchers at San Diego State, Florida International University, Texas, Baylor, Virginia Commonwealth, Penn, USC, Washington, Indiana/Purdue, Mississippi, and Michigan State.

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What is "Charitable Choice"?

Charitable choice provisions appear in a variety of federal programs, though far from all, and permit FBOs to retain their religious identity while participating in government social welfare programs.

The federal government has a long history of partnerships with faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. Government funds have supported FBOs across the full range of social welfare programs, from orphanages and health care to disaster relief and housing. Until the mid-1990s, to the extent that statutes or regulations specifically addressed FBOs, their purpose was typically been to limit or bar participation by FBOs in particular programs. For example, the Community Development Block Grant, administered by HUD, provides that "CDBG assistance may not be used for religious activities or provided to primarily religious entities for any activities, including secular activities."[1] In other programs, policies or regulations have required FBOs, in order to receive government assistance, to strip religious symbols from locations in which services are provided or to remove religious statements from their governing documents.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, wariness toward partnerships between government and FBOs gradually shifted to a more affirmative attitude. An early example of this shift can be found in the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, started in 1983. Funded by a grant from Congress, the program is administered by a National Board which is chaired by a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and composed of representatives from the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Salvation Army, United Jewish Charities, and United Way. The National Board distributes appropriated funds to local boards - whose membership should mirror that of the National Board - which in turn award grants to local government and nonprofit programs that assist the homeless. [2]

The Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) presents a second, though far more controversial, example of partnership with FBOs. Originally enacted in 1981, AFLA provides education for teenagers about sexual health and reproduction, and encourages the involvement of "family members, religious and charitable organizations," and other groups in that educational effort. The law, which also supports programs of care for pregnant teenagers, specifically prohibits expenditure of AFLA funds on programs that "advocate, promote, or encourage abortion." [3] In 1983, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging AFLA grants to FBOs, alleging that such grants violated the Establishment Clause. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, and in Bowen v. Kendrick the Court held that the religious character of some AFLA grantees did not, in itself, represent a constitutional violation. The case was returned to the district court for further developments of the facts; the parties subsequently reached a settlement in the case, which imposed a set of restrictions on FBOs that receive grants under AFLA.

During the 1990s, new federal legislation created the possibility of even more extensive partnerships between government and FBOs. The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990 (CCDBG) was an important step in this development. CCDBG requires states (the primary grantees under the program) to maximize eligible parents' choices of child care providers, and includes sectarian institutions among the classes of eligible providers (see below for further details of this program).

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The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), effected the most significant legislative changes to the relationship between government and FBOs. PRWORA's sweeping reform of federal welfare programs contain the "Charitable Choice" provisions, which include the following:[4]

  • Non-Discrimination in Funding:

    If a state funds non-governmental entities to provide services financed under PRWORA, the state cannot exclude FBOs from participating as providers simply because of their religious character. PRWORA does not require states to use non-governmental entities to provide services under the act, but if they choose to do so, states must allow FBOs to participate (or compete for grants) on equal terms. Where state law forbids support for sectarian organizations, PRWORA requires that federal funds be placed in a separate account, and FBOs must be eligible to compete for or receive the segregated funds.

  • Providers' Religious Identity Preserved:

    An FBO need not abandon its religious identity to receive government funds under the PRWORA. The religious character of the FBO's governance, including its mission statement and criteria for selecting officers and board members, may be maintained. Nor may federal or state officials require an FBO to "remove religious art, icons, scripture, or other symbols" as a condition of receiving PRWORA funds. In addition, FBOs funded through PRWORA programs retain their right, under section 702 of Title VII, to prefer co-religionists in employment decisions. PRWORA does not, however, expressly preempt state or local anti-discrimination laws, which may operate to limit FBOs' right to prefer co-religionists.

  • Recipients' Religious Liberty Protected:

    An individual who is eligible to receive benefits under a PRWORA-funded program, but who objects to receiving services from an FBO, has the right to receive such services from an alternative provider. Providers financed through PRWORA may not discriminate against service recipients on grounds of religion, and may not condition delivery of services on recipients' participation in religious activities.

  • Limited Audit:

    If an FBO providing services under a PRWORA program establishes a separate account for government funds received for such services, the required government audit will be limited to that separate account.

  • Religious Activities Proscribed:

    PRWORA specifies that "No funds provided directly to institutions or organizations to provide services and administer programs under [this Act] shall be expended for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." This limitation is important for two reasons. First, it reflects the unquestioned minimum content of the Establishment Clause: the government may not directly finance these distinctively religious activities. Second, the limitation applies only to "direct" funding under the PRWORA - grants or contracts to FBOs - not to indirect forms of financing such as vouchers or certificates. If an FBO receives only indirect government aid, the service provided by the FBO does not need to be segregated from worship, religious instruction, or proselytizing.

    As originally enacted, the Charitable Choice provisions applied to the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program (TANF, created by PRWORA to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children), along with the Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income programs. Since 1996, Congress has added Charitable Choice provisions to a number of other federal programs. In 1997, Charitable Choice provisions were applied to the Welfare-to-Work program; in 1998, to the Community Services Block Grant; and in 2000, to the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant and Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, along with discretionary funding programs for substance abuse treatment administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). With minor exceptions,[5] the CSBG and SAMHSA Charitable Choice provisions mirror those in PRWORA, while the Welfare-to-Work program directly adopts PRWORA's Charitable Choice provisions.

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[1] 24 CFR § 570.200(j).
[2] For more information, see the Emergency Food and Shelter Program website, The EFSP legislation can be found at 42 USC § 11331 et. seq.
[3] 42 USC § 300z et. seq.
[4] PRWORA's Charitable Choice provisions are codified at 42 USC § 604a.
[5] The Charitable Choice provisions in the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) differ from that in PRWORA in four respects: a) since CSBG programs operate only through grants or contracts, the references to vouchers and indirect funding in the PRWORA's provision do not apply; b) CSBG requires a specific, "tripartite" board for Community Action Agencies, and an FBO seeking to become a Community Action Agency under CSBG would be required to conform its governance structure to the statute's specified form; c) entities receiving funds under CSBG are required to establish a separate account for such funds (PRWORA gives FBOs the option to create separate accounts); and d) the CSBG provisions omit the protections for the religious liberty of program beneficiaries.

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