Friday, April 8, 2016

The Atlantic highlights Arkansas's reliance on faith-based programming for social services

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2016 at 4:08 PM

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The Atlantic today takes a deep look at just how large a role faith-based organizations play in the administration of state services in Arkansas. Alana Semuels (who has recently written about Arkansas's anachronistic double-down on freeway expansion for the magazine) begins with reporting on a program called the Exodus Project, which helps inmates learn life skills and obtain their GED.

The program has had impressive results: "In the first year that the Project has been tracking the people it’s worked with, none has gone back to prison," she writes, a remarkable fact in a state with a 42 percent recidivism rate. But there are two ways to look at such success. For those prisoners who've benefited from the program, it's a wonderful thing. For the many more prisoners who don't get to access  the program — including some who may not want to participate in religious programming — there's no alternative.

Semuels writes:
Partnerships between the state and faith-based groups can cause tensions in a pluralistic society. "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions," Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in Virginia, By law, groups that receive money from the government to perform government services aren’t allowed to use that money to preach or proselytize. (The Supreme Court is set to hear a case on the separation of church and state, Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley, this year.)

But in states like Arkansas, where taxes are low and the government doesn’t have the the motivation or support to run very much programming for the poor, it’s the faith-based groups who are providing essential services that might otherwise fall by the wayside. People in need of help are left with a choice: They can get help from faith-based organizations, or they can get no help at all.

Religious bias aside, the corrections system is happy to accept the assistance of faith-based nonprofits in part because it's cheaper and easier than actually addressing the monumental task of prisoner reentry itself. Same with foster parents who've been assisted by The CALL, the Christian nonprofit that works with the state's Division of Children and Family Services to provide expedited training to potential foster families.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's taxpayer money provided to preschools with clear religious affiliations. (See: Rep. Justin Harris's Growing God's Kingdom in West Fork.) There are places like Second Chance Youth Ranch, a group home for kids in the child welfare system I visited last summer (although kids are not required to attend church service, religion is surely a major part of life there). And so on.

I have conflicted feelings about this issue, I've got to admit. There are clear First Amendment problems with pushing a religious faith onto anyone — especially children — as a part of a publicly funded social service. That being said, the reality is that churches are an integral part of communities across the state, and it seems counterproductive to cut them out of the process in those communities entirely. On the other hand, allowing religious entities access to public funds while placing few restrictions on their proselytizing is most definitely a policy choice.  Something I was not aware of: The link between Clinton-era welfare reform and the expansion of faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. Semuels again:
It was the welfare reform bill of 1996 that expanded the relationship between the religious community and the public sector in modern times. The bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (commonly called welfare reform), dramatically changed the amount of aid available to low-income Americans and the way that assistance was distributed. To help fill the gap in services, the law contained a section known as the “Charitable Choice provision,” which encouraged states to contract with religious organizations to provide services to the poor, including job-skills training, medical and health services, and maternity homes.

Before Charitable Choice, faith-based organizations contracting with the government had to remove all religious symbols from places where social services were provided, forgo things like prayers before meals, and accept all clients, even those opposed to the beliefs of the providers, according to Ram Cnaan, the director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Faith-based groups had to establish a separate, secular non-profit to provide social services, and hire staff that represented the beliefs of society at large, rather than of just the organization.

But the 1996 legislation allowed groups to continue to express their religious beliefs as they provided services. It said they could operate without establishing a separate, secular non-profit. All they had to do was make sure that if they received government money to provide services, they weren’t using that money specifically on religious activities.

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