“No funding provided to religious organizations….”
When searching for foundation grants to support the work of faith-based charities, we often see the dreaded restriction, “no funding provided to religious organizations.” Like many others, I was initially put off by funder guidelines that seemed to exclude or at least discourage faith-based entities from applying. But since coming to work for Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSS) in 1999, I have learned more about what the funder is really saying. For example, “No support for religious organizations not of direct benefit to the entire community” means that the funder wants to ensure that our programs are not limited just to Lutherans. This has also been stated as “the foundation will only fund programs at religious organizations if the program contains no bias toward any particular religion and is open to the entire community without regard to belief.”
LSS annually serves 35,000 persons across Texas, with disaster response extending into Louisiana and Oklahoma. I often note that as few as one percent of the thousands of children that we serve and less than 10 percent of the elderly served happen to be Lutheran.
Some foundations apply another test, “not religious in nature.” So I might emphasize that when providing 24-hour care and treatment to severely abused and neglected children, participation in spiritual care activities is completely voluntary. I always follow our mission statement, which is “to provide help, healing and hope in the name of Jesus Christ,” with the declaration that “all services are provided without regard to religious beliefs…”
Others have been known to further refine their tests. For example, one foundation stated that it accepts proposals from religious organizations but places a high burden of proof on the applicant. The foundation refers to the test as the “atheism test,” that is, would an atheist be comfortable and welcome in the program? They clarify that if the program is "open" but the organization defines "open" as "open to anyone with Judeo-Christian beliefs" then they would fail this test and would not be funded. The foundation reports that it has awarded funds to many religious organizations because the programs contained no bias toward any particular religion and are open to the entire community without regard to belief.
Still, there is much confusion about whether a “faith-based” organization should apply to certain foundations or even certain state and federal agencies. As the largest provider of children’s foster care services in Texas, I knew that our long-time government contracts served to demonstrate that we are not in the field of social services to proselytize. Our governmental partnerships preceded President Bush’s 2002 executive orders directing federal agencies to treat religious and secular charities equally when awarding federal money. These laws simply recognize that faith-based organizations have a role to play in providing federally-funded social services, and they clarify how these programs should be operated. Faith-based organizations that receive federal funding are held to the same standards as all other providers of services. Faith-based organizations do not get special treatment and there is no grant money specifically set aside for faith-based providers.
There are grant makers who make grants directly to churches, synagogues, and mosques or closely affiliated religious organizations. This is legal as long as their organizing documents do not prohibit funding religious institutions. The First Amendment to the Constitution, with its bar on governmental action that advances or inhibits religion, does not apply to private grant makers. According to Jane C. Nober, special counsel at the Council on Foundations, “Charitable purposes include the promotion of religion, so that grant makers with organizing documents that allow them to promote broad charitable purposes may make grants to religious institutions for their core, religious functions. Some grant makers choose to support only the nonsectarian activities of these organizations, but this is a policy choice, not a legal requirement.”
In truth, LSS is not a religious organization; rather it is a health and human services agency wherein our faith is expressed through a ministry of service to others – without regard to religious beliefs. We believe that as a Christian agency, we should set the standard for excellence in everything we do.
The moral of this story is the next time you run across the term, “No grants provided to religious organizations;” check further to see if that really means, “...for religious purposes.”
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