EPPC Scholar Letter on “Grave Religious Liberty and Fairness Interests at Stake” in Bill to Reauthorize Community Services Block Grant Program

Published November 3, 2021

On November 3, 2021, EPPC Senior Fellow Roger Severino submitted a letter for the official record at the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee of House Committee on Education and Labor, for its hearing “A Call to Action: Modernizing the Community Services Block Grant.”

Mr. Severino’s letter addresses a proposal in H.R. 5129 to reauthorize the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program without the existing “charitable choice” language, which has been in place since 1998. Citing the “grave religious liberty and fairness interests at stake,” he argues:

H.R. 5129 would replace several subsections with one sentence that states: “Neither the Federal Government nor a State or local government shall require a religious organization to alter its form of internal governance, except (for purposes of administration of the community services block grant program) as provided in section 680(c).”

This replacement language is insufficient to allow meaningful participation by religious organizations. Religious organizations are much more than just their “form of internal governance.” Vital to religious organizations’ religious mission and work are their religious beliefs, tenets, practices, and observances. Gone under the proposal would be specific protections for hiring of co-religionists, which has long ago been settled as vital to faith-based organizations’ ability to preserve their religious identities and mission.

While not perfect, the current statutory language provides necessary protections for religious organizations and has opened the door to equal participation by faith-based entities who have relied on these protections for decades. Moreover, there is simply no justification for the change as the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) long ago explained how the statute’s charitable choice language does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Mr. Severino, who directs EPPC’s HHS Accountability Project, previously served as the head of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, when 45 C.F.R. 87 (“Equal Treatment for Faith-Based Organizations”) was adopted in its present form.

He concludes the letter with a recommendation that the subcommittee amend the statute by directly incorporating language from the regulations “to achieve greater consistency simplicity, without eroding any substantive protections.”

Read a PDF of the full letter here.

Roger Severino is a former senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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