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Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Government's Role in Building the Capacity of Faith-Based Organizations

Developing the organizational capacity of faith-based organizations that wish to compete for government grants has been a hallmark of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiative. The Administration has identified such capacity-building as a key strategy to "level the playing field" for small, grassroots religious charities that want to compete for government service contracts against larger, entrenched organizations.

In 2002, the Administration even designated a new pot of money, the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), to provide small grants to faith-based groups to assist them with such organizational growth, in areas such as governance, fundraising, and technology. By the end of 2008, CCF made 112 grants to intermediaries that provide sub-awards, training, and technical assistance to more than 4,100 grassroots providers in 47 states and the District of Columbia, according to the White House.

The legality of these grants came into question in a 2006 case brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, concerning a federal grant to a marriage education program offered by the Northwest Marriage Institute. Americans United's claims included two charges: (1) that the government was illegally funding a Bible-based program; and (2) that it was improper for the Christian NMI to use tax money to improve its ability to raise funds, write grants and manage finances – all things that would support its religious as well as secular activities. The lawsuit was dismissed after it was determined that NMI had altered its marriage programs to exclude religious content.

The court, therefore, never ultimately addressed the question of whether government could provide capacity-building grants to support secular purposes, if the recipient's religious functions would ultimately benefit from that support, too. Government support for capacity-building creates distinct, and perhaps trickier, legal questions than other types of financial assistance provided by the government to faith-based groups. In other situations where government provides direct financial aid to religious service providers, taxpayer funds must be used exclusively for secular programming, and the government is responsible for monitoring the use of those funds. But with capacity-building grants, it is less clear that one can separate the secular purposes of the funding from the benefits bestowed on the organization's religious mission. As the Roundtable's legal experts say in their legal analysis of the case, Christianson v. Leavitt (see below), “the aid constitutes financial support for the organization's religious activity, but at the same time is not directly related to the religious content of the organization's programming.”

Roundtable Legal Analyses

Barry Christianson (and others) v. Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services (and others), Sept. 16, 2006

State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations, December 2006

Roundtable Interviews

Q&A on Building the Capacity of Faith-Based Organizations, Nov. 4, 2008

Shepherd Smith
of Institute for Youth Development
, July 25, 2006

Rev. Luis Cortes of Nueva Esperanza, June 13, 2006

Robert Sprinkle of the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University, Dec. 19, 2005

Celeste Bagley of Volunteers of America, Nov. 1, 2005

Christine Marquez, director of consulting and capacity building for JVA Consulting, June 20, 2005

Rev. Annie Britt-Berry of Redeemed Inc., May 23, 2005

Vicki Jackson is executive director of the Inland Empire Cops, Clergy & Community Network, May 10, 2004

Rev. Linda Freeman of Peacemaker Family Center, March 14, 2004

Rev. David Shaheen of Christ Lutheran Community Church, March 1, 2004

Anne Corriston of Episcopal Social Services, Feb. 17, 2004

Lee Baugh of the S.T.E.P. Foundation, Jan. 5, 2004

Roundtable News Stories

President Bush Makes Final Push to Boost Faith-Based Legacy, Dec. 9, 2008

Federal Fund Provides "Compassion Capital" to Nonprofits for Sixth Year, Oct. 9, 2007

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Federally Funded Marriage Program, March 27, 2007

In Its Sixth Year, Fund Announces Latest Grants to Bolster Faith-Based Capacity, March 6, 2007

President's Budget Freezes Faith-Based Programs, Lowers Domestic Spending, Feb. 6, 2007

Embattled Marriage Program Claims Tax Money Never Funded Religion, Jan. 30, 2007

Marriage Money Flows to Faith-Based and Community Organizations, Oct. 6, 2006

Marriage Program Charged With Using Tax Money to Spread Christian Message, Sept. 12, 2006

First Lady Moves Youth Initiative Forward, Aug. 2, 2005

New Funding Aimed at Charitable and Faith-Based Service Providers, Sept. 13, 2004

Two States Step Up Faith-Based and Community Efforts, Oct. 11, 2004

Administration Targets Faith-Based Providers for Grants, Aug. 9, 2004

A Look at Compassion Capital Funding One Year Later, Oct. 31, 2003