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Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

The impossible politics of church-state partnerships

Republicans and Democrats generally agree that at least some faith groups should be eligible for government funds. After that, things get complicated

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This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Most Americans believe faith-based organizations should be eligible for government funds. But strong public support doesn’t mean passing related laws is a walk in the park.

In recent decades, policymakers have repeatedly struggled to work out the fine print on church-state partnerships. Democrats and Republicans generally agree that at least some religious homeless shelters, day care centers or other organizations can receive public money, but they rarely see eye-to-eye on what strings should be attached.

Take the ongoing debate over the “Build Back Better Act,” for example. Among other conflicts, lawmakers are clashing over eligibility requirements tied to its child care and pre-K funds. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have called for an outright exclusion of faith-based providers, but they have very different ideas about what inclusion looks like.

In its current form, the Democrat-led bill would enable government partnerships with only those daycares and preschools that meet a variety of nondiscrimination requirements. Centers that impose faith-based enrollment restrictions or refuse to hire members of the LGBTQ community would be unable to accept the newly available funds.

Republican lawmakers, as well as a variety of faith-based groups, claim the proposal amounts to religious discrimination. But several Democrats believe the bill would actually prevent discrimination by ensuring that money only goes to organizations that are open to all people in need.

“The Build Back Better Act must not allow government-funded discrimination — in employment or in the provision of services to participants,” wrote a group of Democratic lawmakers to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter earlier month, according to The New York Times.

For Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, this latest battle over government funding for faith groups feels deeply familiar. For decades, he and others policymakers have fought over how religious a publicly funded, faith-based program can be.

“In part, it comes down to a different interpretation of what it means for the government to serve everybody,” he said. On one side of the conflict are people who say every organization that receives public funds needs to be open to all. On the other are people who want the government to partner with a wide variety of groups to ensure that funds reach a wide variety of people.

In recent years, the size of the first camp has grown much bigger, in part because of growing frustration with religious objectors to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Those who support strong nondiscrimination requirements in the funding context “are now in the driver seat of the Democratic Party,” Carlson-Thies said.

Even so, these policymakers may be out of step with most of the country. New research from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty shows that most people — including most Democrats — believe the government should seek out partnerships with the religious organizations that have a proven track record of success, not those that align 100% with “mainstream beliefs.”

“Majorities of Republican, Democrat and Independent respondents all said government should partner with faith-based organizations based on results rather than beliefs. So too did majorities of respondents who said faith was not very or not at all important, and respondents with no religious affiliation,” Becket reported.

Carlson-Thies hopes that some of these Democratic voters will speak up in the coming weeks to call for changes to the “Build Back Better” bill, which the House passed last week.

“The Democratic Party includes members of Black churches and Hispanic churches who know the importance of church-based daycare. What if they say, ‘Wait a second. ... You’re trampling on something that’s really important here,’” he said.

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: New Revised Standard Version

In graduate school, I learned to love what I fondly think of as the nerdiest translation of the Bible. It’s called the New Revised Standard Version, or NRSV.

The NRSV, which was first published in 1989, is the work of a large committee of scholars from a variety of religious backgrounds. Throughout their translation work, they were guided by the goals of making the Bible more accurate and readable; they wanted to replace words like “thou” and “thee,” as well as phrases that were used differently in the past than they are today, according to Zondervan publishing company.

Over the past three decades, the committee has continued to refine the NRSV. Just last week, scholars announced 20,000 revisions that will be part of a new edition, as Religion News Service reported.

What I’m reading ...

Findings related to government funding for religious organizations were just one small part of Becket’s survey, titled the Religious Freedom Index. It’s fascinating to read through the full report and consider the wide-ranging — and sometimes conflicting — ideas that people have about religious liberty protections.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ battle over communion access is over ... at least for now. Last week, conference members approved a document on the sacrament of the eucharist that says nothing about barring Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from taking communion, as The New York Times reported. More conservative bishops had initially viewed the document as a chance to push back against President Joe Biden.

In other Catholic news, my faith beat colleague Michael O’Loughlin wrote a beautiful column for The New York Times about what he’s gained from researching and writing about the Catholic nuns who ministered to gay men during the height of America’s HIV crisis. If you enjoy the piece, please check out his new book: “Hidden Mercy.”

Odds and ends

Pew Research Center’s latest look at religious restrictions around the world reports that 41 countries imposed a ban on at least one faith-related group in 2019. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’is were the most common targets of these policies.

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope your day is filled with laughter, love and lots and lots of pie.