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Should Governments Fund Faith-Based Groups?

9 Feb 2010. The Constitution of the United States has been interpreted from the very early days of our nation to forbid the federal government from favoring any particular religion. The doctrine is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Our 14th Amendment extends the prohibition to state governments. Municipalities and other governmental agencies are also understood to be prohibited from favoring any particular religion. Several key Founders and Framers — Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington did not want anything like the Church of England to arise in the new nation, which they wanted to establish on principles of reason, not religion. These men were not anti-religious, but they knew from experience and their knowledge of history that governments with strong ties to a particular religion inevitably diminish religious freedom and increase religious tyranny.

From the beginning, the relationship of the state to religion has been a complicated one in our country. I repeat: the Founders and Framers of the Constitution were not anti-religion. Indeed, some were devout Christians. Some were Deists; some had no allegiance to any particular organized religious group. Contrary to what some Christian propagandists maintain, the United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation.* The principles of our Constitution are not Christian principles. They are not even theistic principles; God is not mentioned at all in the Constitution. This was not because the Framers didn't believe in a God. All of them seem to have believed in the existence of what was referred to in the Declaration of Independence as "our creator." What the Framers believed about a creator, or the Bible for that matter, is a separate issue from what they put into law in the Constitution.

This fact that the Framers wanted religions to be independent of government and government independent from the control of any particular religion has never set well with a certain segment of the Christian community in America. From the beginning of our nation, there have been organized movements by groups of Christians to undermine the separation of church and state, and to remake the nation to fit with their view of how things should be. Some of the undermining attempts have been blatant: saying Christian prayers in classrooms of public schools, banning the teaching of evolution in public classrooms, opening sessions of Congress or the Supreme Court with a Christian prayer, swearing to the tell the truth "so help me God" in courtroom oaths, putting "in God we trust" on our money and "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and having our president end speeches with "God bless America" and being sworn in by holding one hand on a Bible to name just a few. Some of these attempts to undermine the independence of the state from religion have been stopped by our courts, much to the dismay of those Christians who believe the U.S. is and should be a Christian nation governed by principles they think are established in the Bible.

Despite what the Christian propagandists say, the separation of church and state is not anti-religious. It is just the opposite. The majority of the Framers realized that the best way to protect the right of people to believe whatever they want about God and spirits and immortality, etc., is to not let any one religious group have the power to dictate what others must believe and do. Jefferson and others were familiar with the arguments of John Locke for separation of church and state. The fate of one's immortal soul depends on one's religious beliefs, argued Locke; thus, the issue was too important to every individual to have the government tell them what they must believe. Better to let the government deal with things that matter in this world, i.e., concern itself with secular matters only. Let the various religions concern themselves with matters of the "world beyond this world."

Separation forced religious groups to become what were called "factions" in the 18th century (what we call special interest groups). The great danger is that one faction will become so powerful as to control all the branches of government. One faction could envelop a majority of citizens and could run roughshod over minorities. The only protection we have from a tyranny of the majority is our law, especially the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the federal constitution. When you hear a group of people clamor about how they want to "take back the nation," know that what they mean is that they want to take over the nation. Such groups may even claim that they want a "return to rule under the Constitution," when in fact what they want is to undermine the Constitution and replace it with their own (usually Christian) vision of how they think our country should be governed. Only once in our nation's history has a Christian subversive group been upfront about remaking the nation and doing so the way the Framers allowed: the Temperance League's short-lived success with Prohibition. Getting constitutional amendments passed is time-consuming and difficult, as those who tried to prohibit abortion and equal rights for gays have found. The law may be what protects us from tyranny, but ultimately it is the courts that tell us what the law will be. That is why subversives always attack the judiciary first and why presidents try to pack the courts with judges who agree with their politics.

The Establishment Clause has never been interpreted to mean that religion can have no role in government. That idea is, in effect, absurd on its face since most people in the U.S. are affiliated with some sort of religion or have some sort of loose set of religious beliefs. Unless a person's religion has no effect on his life, religion will always play a role in government. Furthermore, our laws have been interpreted to allow religions to get special privileges, such as tax breaks on properties a church owns. Technically, religions get tax breaks not because they're religions but because they are considered non-profit organizations. Being a non-profit doesn't mean they're not wealthy or don't have a huge payroll. All it means, as far as I can tell, is that religious institutions don't have stockholders. I'm not a lawyer, however, so I could be wrong about why mega-rich churches whose ministers get obscene amounts of money for ministering over their organizations are considered non-profits. If we took away the tax breaks now granted to so-called "faith-based" organizations, would we have to take away the privileges now granted to other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are not "faith-based"? Would all those tax deductions we now get for donating to the JREF, CFI, Skeptics Society, and other not-for-profit skeptical, humanist, or atheist organizations evaporate?

Even if we were able to rewrite the law so that religions were not given special status regarding tax exemptions, while non-religious non-profits were able to retain their privileges, what would we do about non-profit charities or social services run by "faith-based" groups? Maybe the Catholic Church shouldn't get a tax break on the property it owns or the money it rakes in from donations, but what about Catholic schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, etc.? Schools we might easily dismiss, since religious instruction is an intrinsic part of such schools, and governments shouldn't subsidize instruction in any particular religion. But what about Catholic hospitals? It can't be denied that they provide a vital service to the community, but if they get government subsidies or tax breaks, does that mean they can disregard discrimination laws and hire only Catholics or fire anyone who leaves the church? Yes, if the country is Germany. Maybe, if the country is England or any other country in the UK. Those places don't have a constitution requiring separation of church and state, of course. Yet, here in the U.S., where we supposedly have such a separation, the G. W. Bush administration opened the door to the U.S. treasury to "faith-based" groups and established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. President Obama vowed to change things, but in his first year in office he seems to have done little more than change the name of the "faith-based" operation (it's now called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships). Obama had vowed to ensure that its practices would reflect a strong separation of church and state.

One year after president Obama set up an advisory council to reform the faith-based office in the White House, a coalition of religious, civil rights, and secular humanist groups issued an open letter urging the president to "take additional actions to prevent government-funded religious discrimination and protect social service beneficiaries from unwelcome proselytizing." In a separate action, the Center for Inquiry issued its own open letter to the president. CFI is a non-profit "that encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society." CFI rebukes the recommendations of the advisory committee: "there are some serious deficiencies in the council's recommendations that could allow for continued direct federal, state, and local government funding of religious activities and proselytization." The CFI letter went on to chastise the White House for not doing "anything to ban religious organizations that receive federal dollars from discriminating against employees and volunteers on the basis of religion."

Nobody seems to be concerned about the government funding the activities of religious groups. Are these critics implying that it is justifiable for religious groups to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring or in screening volunteers as long as the religious group isn't federally funded? Should religious groups be federally funded at all? But even if they are federally funded, shouldn't they have to obey the same employment laws that other organizations have to follow. If it's illegal for Wal-Mart to refuse to hire someone because she's Catholic, shouldn't it be illegal for the Catholic Church to refuse to hire someone because she's not Catholic (assuming being Catholic has nothing to do with the job, e.g., nursing, feeding the poor, working the cash register, sorting clothes at a thrift shop, making breakfast)?

Some governments hand out money to groups if they think the group's activities will bring in money to the state. Attracting conventions to one's city or state or country can bring in millions of dollars from visitors and attendees. It was reported that the Victoria government subsidized a large part of a $3.25 million "appearance fee" given to Tiger Woods for playing in the Australian Masters in 2009. Without Woods, $19 million was expected to be poured into the economy by the golf tournament. With Woods, it poured an estimated $34 million into the local economy. The government used $1.5 million of its taxpayers' money to lure Woods, but felt it got a very good return on its investment, with fans spending up big at hotels, restaurants and retail outlets during the event. The same kind of thing might happen if the government subsidized an appearance by televangelist Joel Osteen or faux medium John Edward. Should governments give out money to "faith-based" groups that have the potential to bring in a large sum of cash? In fact, the Victorian Government and the Australian federal government gave $2 million to The Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Melbourne shortly after the Australian Masters.

Given the fact that the local and federal governments of Australia seem to see giving money to a group or individual as a business investment, it is inevitable that many who are denied funding are going to claim they were discriminated against. The laws that allow such behavior by the government seem to provide an open door to discrimination of every kind by those in power. They can refuse funds to anyone on the grounds that they don't think it's a good investment. If a Muslim or atheist group applies for funds, they can say "sorry, we don't think there's a big enough market." Whether governments should be subsidizing activities of religious groups is another issue altogether. In any case, I would hope that whether a government funds the activity of a religious group would be considered irrelevant to the issue of whether that religious group can legally discriminate in hiring or firing on the basis of religion.

I have to admit I was caught off guard by the opening sentence of a recent article in TheAge, an Australian media outlet. The article began: "An atheist convention in Melbourne has sold out six weeks before it opens despite no aid from any level of government, organisers said." In the U.S., I don't think it would even occur to any atheist group to expect any level of government to provide financial assistance for a convention. David Nicholls, the president of Atheist Foundation of Australia, which is sponsoring the convention, was quoted as saying that the state government had ''stabbed the people of Victoria in the back'' by not helping, forcing organizers to hire smaller venues. ''We were very annoyed that all three tiers of government refused to assist us,'' he said.

I contacted Mr. Nicholls and asked him if it is the position of the Atheist Foundation of Australia that government should be funding atheist organizations and did he think it was right for government to fund religious groups. Here is his response:

The Atheist Foundation of Australia approached all three tiers of Government in an attempt to enter a sponsorship deal with them. The Global Atheist Convention initially showed signs of being quite a large affair and as it turned out it was larger than expected and could have attracted many more folk than our present sold out situation.

The AFA is a not-for-profit organisation and cannot afford risk taking to any large degree. As we were to be responsible for bringing many millions of dollars from overseas and interstate our advice from the Victorian Government was to apply for assistance. The criterion was a convention had to have over a thousand patrons with a mix from around the planet and Australia. We have amply and overly met those conditions.

The Vic. Govt. has poorly served Victoria. This is because of the loss of revenue from patrons who will not be attending. Our advertising was limited as was the size of the venue because of Govt procrastination and then refusal to help with a substantially smaller amount than other such like events. For instance, the four-and-a-half million1 given to the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In total, we asked for $270,000 shared between the three tiers of government.

This is not a matter of funding for Atheism or theism. It would not matter if it had been a convention of basket weavers who met the criteria. It is all about attracting outside funds into Victoria.

The AFA is opposed to Governments giving tax breaks, perks, grants, subsidies etc. to religions if they are to be used for religious purposes excluding charity. The non-accountability of the present system means all tax payers are footing the bill to promote religion. The pernicious part of this is the interference to young minds in state schools with chaplaincy programs and religious indoctrination all paid for by you whether that is your wish or not.

According to its website, "The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world." So, isn't the government promoting religion by underwriting a convention of these people? And wouldn't it be promoting atheism if it subsidized an atheist convention? One could argue that the government is no more supporting religion or atheism in these cases than it would be supporting prostitution if it supported a convention of sex workers. As long as the bottom line is the bottom line, the government is just a business partner, not a proponent. It seems like a fine line to me, though. I must admit, however, that since the Parliament of the World's Religions isn't a particular religion, even the U.S. government might justify subsidizing the group without violating the constitutional prohibition of the state favoring a particular religion. If the group is willing to join forces with atheists and agnostics in promoting harmony, peace, and justice, then I probably wouldn't object to my government throwing a few tax dollars their way. I don't have to worry about any level of government in the U.S. subsidizing atheists (or gays!). Atheists are such a despised minority in this country that the likelihood of any government agency providing grants or subsidies to any atheist group is effectively nil.

What I don't think should be allowed is for people to get special privileges from government or be denied their legal rights because of their religion or lack of it. President Obama is the first president in our nation's history to extend this understanding to the non-religious. As recently as 1992, President George Herbert Walker Bush announced that he wasn't sure atheists should be considered citizens because America is "one nation under God." The pledge of allegiance isn't the law of the land, even if a president thinks it is. And just because a president says he's going to reform something and bring it in line with our Constitution does not mean he will do so.

I've already mentioned that a number of groups have complained to the White House about the advisory committee that is supposed to provide advice on how to reform the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships so that it does not continue to break down the wall between church and state. Last week, this committee issued a report dealing with the votes of its 24 members on just two issues. The issues it voted on demonstrate the hopelessness of making any progress: 1) Should the government allow nongovernmental providers of federally funded social services to provide those services in rooms that contain religious art, scripture, messages, or symbols? 2) Should the government require houses of worship to form separate corporations to receive direct federal social service funds? It is insulting that the committee is even asking these questions. It is demoralizing that more than half said yes to the first and half said no to the second question.


1. Other sources state the amount given to the religious convention at $2 million. In response to my question about this discrepancy, Nicholls says: "It is my understanding the federal government supplied 2 million dollars, the Victorian government came good for another 2 million dollars, and the Melbourne City Council coughed up 500,000."

update: 9 Mar 2010. Religious Rights: Hiring Discrimination? Today, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will present their recommendations for his Faith-Based Office to him....one key reform recommendation is notably absent: a law requiring religious organizations that receive federal funding to stop discriminating in their hiring practices based on religion.

further reading

Groups Call on Obama to Reform Faith-Based Office

CFI’s Letter to President Obama Regarding the Report by his Faith-Based Advisory Council

Religious leaders worry that Obama's faith council is for show

An inside look at faith-based social services in Germany

Losing Your Religion Can Also Mean Losing Your Livelihood

Oh, my God - atheist convention sells out

Australian Government Gives Millions for Religious Conference, None for Atheist Conference

reader comments

1 September 2010
Dear Dr Carroll:

In your Skeptimedia article "Should Governments Fund Faith-Based Groups?" (9 Feb 2010) you write:


But what about Catholic hospitals? It can't be denied that they provide a vital service to the community, but if they get government subsidies or tax breaks, does that mean they can disregard discrimination laws and hire only Catholics or fire anyone who leaves the church?  Yes, if the country is Germany.

You then link to an article that decries the case of a hospital worker who was fired from a Catholic hospital after leaving the Church and who was subsequently denied public unemployment benefits for 12 weeks because she had "only herself to blame" for losing her job.

I have two points of criticism on this:


1. The facts of the case as described in the linked article are outdated. A federal court overturned the ruling and granted benefits to the former hospital worker from the first day of her unemployment (http://www.ibka.org/node/598 - German only, sorry, but maybe you can have it translated by Google). This kind of restores my confidence in German courts. The woman did not get her job back, however, so technically, the statement in your own article is still correct. Church organizations in Germany do have the right to select their employees based on their faith.

2. The linked article gives a totally distorted picture of the situation in Germany, speaking of "the stranglehold that the churches have on employment in Germany", "the preponderance of 'faith-based' employers", fears of being an "outcast" or "social vermin" and such nonsense. This is preposterous. I am a proud atheist and have never experienced any difficulties, because religion does not play a major role in everyday life. In fact, employers hardly ever care about your faith or non-faith, and you don't have to provide any information in this regard when you apply for a job. Institutions owned by the Church are the one exception, but even here the article provides false information, claiming that “'faith-based' institutions control 87% of the hospital beds". This is untrue: In current statistics, only about a third of all hospital beds are owned by institutions called "freigemeinnützig", a legal term which comprises faith-based but also non-faith-based non-profit organizations (German again). Still a significant share, but a very different situation with respect to the employment opportunities of atheist workers.

In my opinion, you should reconsider whether the site you linked to is really a reliable source to quote.

Kind regards

Holger Märtens, Germany

reply: I sent Herr Märtens' criticisms to the author of the article he complains about, Muriel Fraser. I have had correspondence with Ms. Fraser before and consider her a trustworthy source. In any case, I'll let her defend herself. She does a much better job of it than I could.

1. "The facts of the case as described in the linked article are outdated."  

Yes, because the article is clearly dated June 2006. The percentage of hospital beds in church-run institutions which was cited in the article was taken from Carsten Frerk’s standard work, Caritas und Diakonie, (page 35), which was published in 2005. He's an authority on church finances and they don't dispute his figures. Any doubts about these statistics for 2005 might be best taken up with Dr. Frerk. As to the main topic, the church labor laws, an update about several court challenges in light of the new antidiscrimination legislation can be found here.

Probably the most recent judgement is described (in German) here.

The title translates as “Catholic clinic: Fired due to second marriage”) and it’s dated 1 July 2010. Although the doctor got his job back on a technicality, (as the church-run hospital hadn't been consistent) the court affirmed the right of the church in principle to fire him. And crucially, the decision was based not on the EU antidiscrimination law, but on the German Constitution which allows the churches to run their own affairs “independently”. See article 137.3 of the Appendix here.

2. "I am a proud atheist and have never experienced any difficulties.”

Mr. Märtens’ doubts appear to be based solely on personal experience. Has he talked to people from many walks of life in both town and country, and read online forums where people seek advice from each other on how to cope with church employment practices? Perhaps he might also be interested in reading articles like the one published by a German trade union which has a membership of 2.2 million, Annette Jensen's "Under God’s roof" here

Or he might take a look at the excerpt from Dr. Frerk about the conditions encountered by the 2.5 million employees of the churches here.

After the government, the churches are the largest employers in Germany. Dr. Frerk includes a standard employment contract stipulating that one can be fired from a Catholic institution without notice for “serious breaches” of Canon Law. These include leaving the Church, living together without marriage, or even marrying someone who has been divorced, (since the Church doesn’t recognize this and views it as adultery). A church institution can investigate the private life of an employee on the basis of an anonymous tip, as happened very recently in the case mentioned above of the doctor fired from a Catholic clinic when he remarried.

It is nice that Mr. Märtens has “never experienced any difficulties”, but 2.5 million of his countrymen risk losing their jobs if their private lives do not conform to church teachings.  

Muriel Fraser

Holger Märtens replies:

Thank you for your prompt reply. Also, it is an excellent idea to give Ms Fraser the opportunity to comment. Unfortunately, she only addresses the minor points of my criticism:

Regarding the outdated case information, this was directed at you as much as at Ms Fraser, so you could complement your reference to her article. Still, the age of her article is only a partial excuse. Other authors try to follow up on their stories and post new articles or updates. You yourself do that routinely; why can't Ms Fraser? She even makes it difficult for readers to follow the cases by themselves because she does not provide a case number or a relevant link. In fact, I'm only guessing that the more recent article I found relates to the same case, although it does seem likely.

reply: Actually, I don't always follow up on my articles. I've written on thousands of topics and can't keep up with them all. I rely on the kindness of strangers, such as yourself, to keep me informed of important changes.

Regarding the 87% figure, she refers me to her source, Dr. Frerk. (She didn't name her sources in her article.) I e-mailed him and will let you know when I get an answer. Until then, I consider it problematic to quote such an outrageous number without questioning it. Think about it: 87% of hospital capacity controlled by religious organizations? That's something you might expect in Iran, not in a Western industrialized country!

[note: update regarding Dr. Frerk's response: It turns out that Ms Fraser quoted him incorrectly: The 87% figure does not refer to the share of church-controlled beds among all German hospitals. Rather, it is the share of "LIGA" hospitals controlled by "Caritas" and "Diakonie".

"LIGA der freien Wohlfahrtspflege" is an association of six charitable organizations, which seem to comprise either all or the majority of the "freigemeinnützige" agencies mentioned in the statistics that I myself quoted. "Caritas" and "Diakonie" are the two major players within this block, representing the Catholic and Protestant Churches, respectively. The German Red Cross is another member.

So, slightly simplified, 87% seems to be the share of church-run hospitals among the non-profit ones, not among all hospitals. That's quite a difference. (It also refers to hospitals, not beds, but the share of beds is very similar at 88%.)]

Ms Fraser criticizes the fact that I'm judging by personal experience regarding the influence of churches and religion in everyday life. Well, her data is not much better than mine: she has "talked to people" and "read online forums" where people discuss their personal experiences. So her information is purely anecdotal, just like mine. Any statistics or polls on day-to-day religious harassment would be interesting. I don't have any - does she or Dr. Frerk?

The remainder of Ms Fraser's comments seeks to illustrate how the churches' demand for spiritual "loyalty" makes their employees' lives difficult, and how controversial their funding is. I never denied any of this, nor did I defend it (I never complained about the gist of your article, either), so she is barking up the wrong tree. What truly bothers me about her writing -- and I thought I had made that clear -- is the contorted picture she paints of the supposed religious dominance in everyday life. She makes Germany appear almost like a theocracy, what with the "stranglehold" of the churches and all that -- see my first e-mail. That, as I said, is preposterous. And I find it telling that Ms Fraser does not seem to have any reply to that.

So yes, the churches are major employers, and they have a lot of rights (and a lot of money) that they probably shouldn't have. But even with 2.5 million people employed (mostly indirectly) by the churches, that still leaves more than 90% of the job market for everyone. And in the rest of daily life, religion really plays a minor role. Even though Germany is not by definition a laicist (laical?) [secular?] country, religious freedom is guaranteed in our constitution, there is no state church, the state may not favor any religion over another, etc. We also have some of the more stringent anti-discrimination laws. The special rights of the churches are a problem, as are the concordats. There's still a lot of work to do.

In practice, I venture to say that things are much more relaxed here than, say, in the U.S. For instance, our politicians do not (have to) flaunt their faith in public. In fact, they tend to tone down their religious views to attract a wider group of voters. We have a gay Foreign Secretary as well as a gay minister-president, at least one Muslim secretary (state level) and an unknown number of atheist or agnostic secretaries -- unknown because most people just don't care.

"Stranglehold of the churches" - indeed!

Kind regards

Holger Märtens

Muriel Fraser replies to Herr Märtens:

I thank Mr. Märtens for correcting my misinterpretation of Dr. Frerk's figures. Mr. Märtens and I appear to disagree as to what the issue is. As far as I can make out, his main concern is Germany's international image, whereas I'm concerned about the denial of rights to millions of individual Germans.

He wants to discount the massive anecdotal evidence of discrimination until and unless there are "statistics or polls on day-to-day religious harassment". But who is going to pay for these? (I once tried to informally question Germans about religious employment pressures: a selection of the results is here.)

It's not much consolation to a particular individual to point out, as Mr. Märtens does, that 90% of the job market is not controlled by the churches, if the other 10% happens to include most or even all of the jobs available to you in your particular profession and in your particular neighbourhood. Especially for health workers, teachers, and those providing various social services this is far from being a rare occurrence.  

Mr. Märtens also mentions Germany's “stringent anti-discrimination laws”. However, he fails to note that these were reluctantly brought in as an obligation of membership in the European Union; that, because of objections from the churches, Germany delayed them until three years after the 2003 EU deadline had passed; and that, due to church lobbying, when they finally got through, they contained a "church clause" which allows religious discrimination against 2.5 million people. Actually, this last is what I thought we were talking about, but Mr. Märtens seems to be focussed instead on Germany's image abroad.  

He's perfectly free to discuss that with someone else. However, I prefer to concentrate on human rights and, as far as I can see, the full exercise of these requires clear separation of church and state. That's a far cry from the German setup which provides the churches with exemptions to EU anti-discrimination norms. This, in turn, places the vast empire of church institutions (overwhelmingly funded by the state) under the German Constitution and this lets them deny to their 2.5 million employees many of the legal guarantees enjoyed by others. 

Muriel Fraser

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