General Conference urges caution on White House’s faith-based agenda

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church advised its congregations and related institutions in the United States to walk cautiously in relation to one of the central concepts of the Bush administration’s “faith-based” agenda.

A resolution adopted without debate addressed “charitable choice,” which involves the use of public funds for social services and community development programs.

The issue is not whether church-related programs should accept tax dollars but concerned hiring practices and legal structures of organizations receiving them.

“Charitable choice” entered the U.S. political and social-service vocabulary as part of a welfare reform act in 1996. It allows religious organizations receiving federal funds to hire only persons of their own religious persuasion. It also permits religious organizations to directly receive government money without setting up separate nonprofit corporations, a practice of concern among United Methodists.

President George W. Bush incorporated “charitable choice” into a program to make more faith-based organizations federal service providers. It is a central plank in the president’s “faith-based and community initiatives.”

The resolution reminds United Methodists of existing guidelines on the receipt and use of public dollars, including non-discrimination in hiring. Language specifically discrimination based on race, gender and religious affiliation was removed in a legislative committee, but a provision already exists in a measure adopted by General Conference in 2000.

Entitled “Charitable Choice,” the resolution as amended was passed without opposition in a legislative committee.  It was approved on a consent calendar and was not debated on the floor.

The resolution originated with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, which relates to community centers and other programs affected by federal social service legislation, regulations, and funding streams.

United Methodists, according to the new resolution, should “abide by the historical and prudent principle of separate nonprofit incorporation for organizations and programs receiving public service funds, including the setting up of separate service corporations by congregations so engaged.” It said this approach was needed to protect “the church from liability claims.” This is long-standing United Methodist policy.

Delegates also agreed that congregations and church-related social service institutions should carefully investigate the terms and implications of all public grants and contracts “to ensure that the tasks undertaken and expected outcomes are consistent with the United Methodist Social Principles.”

Another provision encourages United Methodists to engage in dialogue on the public policy and religious liberty implications of “charitable choice.”

* Wright is the information officer for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7.
After May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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