The Faith-Based Initiative

The Faith-Based Initiative refers to federal statutes and policies that were designed to break down the church state separation safeguards that apply when the federal government partners with religiously-affiliated organizations that perform social services. A key component of Faith-Based Initiative is that it exempts religiously-affiliated organizations that take federal funds from adhering to laws that prohibit hiring discrimination on the basis of religion. In short, it allows religiously-affiliated organizations to take government grants to perform services but also discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion with those dollars. Religious freedom is no excuse for taking taxpayer dollars and discriminating against workers with those funds.

We have been fighting these policies for more than two decades. 

The federal government has adopted federally funded employment policies in three main ways:

Charitable Choice

Starting in the 1990s, Congress included provisions in a few key social service programs that eliminated many of the vital church-state protections that traditionally applied to government partnerships with faith-based social service organizations. Among other things, this language, called “charitable choice,” allows faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion while using government funds.

We continue to fight to remove this language from these statutes and to prevent the insertion of similar provisions into other federal social service programs.

For example, we defeated language in the 2017 National Defense Reauthorization Act that would have required every federal agency to allow federally-funded contractors to discriminate. 


The Faith-Based Initiative     

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order to exempt faith-based contractors from a longstanding prohibition on employment discrimination by federal contractors, permitting religious hiring discrimination. The Bush Administration regulations also sanctioned religious employment discrimination in nearly all federally funded social service programs, such as those that provide services for at-risk youth and job training.

We continue to urge the federal government to take steps to rollback the Faith-Based Initiative. 

The Legal Opinion

Because a few social service programs explicitly prohibit religious hiring discrimination, the Bush Administration needed to take another step in addition to the s executive order and new regulations. To reach those programs, the Bush Administration issued a legal opinion that claims that faith-based organizations that receive federal grants to carry out social service programs have a right under RFRA to engage in hiring discrimination with those grant funds—even if the law creating those programs explicitly prohibits employment discrimination.

In 2015, we joined 130 other organizations to request that the Obama Administration review this legal opinion. He did not. 

This policy remains in place. The Trump Administration continues to permit hiring discrimination in government-funded social service programs that explicitly bar such discrimination, such as the programs implementing the Violence Against Women Act.


One Way The Obama Administration Rejected Religious Hiring Discrimination:

During his term in office, President Obama rejected arguments that he should exempt faith-based federal contractors from bars on LGBTQ hiring discrimination. In July 2014, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees. Before he signed the executive order, some groups urged the President to include a provision that would exempt faith-based contractors from this new rule. He wisely rejected their request. Nonetheless, some are now arguing that RFRA allows faith-based organizations to ignore the executive order’s nondiscrimination protections.

We joined 98 organizations to urge the Obama Administration to ensure faith-based contractors abide by the same non-discrimination requirements that apply to all other contractors.

We will continue to urge the Trump Administration to rollback the Faith-Based Initiative and will oppose efforts to adopt new laws and policies that allow federally-funded hiring discrimination.