To: Senate Political Subdivisions Committee
From: Christopher T. Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: Senate Bill 2349 (to Provide an Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives)
Date: February 4, 2005

During his State of the Union Address last night, President George Bush stated:

Because one of the deepest values of our country is compassion, we must never turn away from any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America. Our government will continue to support faith-based and community groups that bring hope to harsh places.

The President’s remarks reflected a bipartisan recognition of the need to build partnerships between government and nongovernmental faith-based and community organizations to address society’s challenges. Recognition of this need extends back to the Clinton administration and was embraced by all the major presidential candidates for the last three elections.

To understand why this issue has garnered such attention and support, and to shed light on why North Dakota should have an office for faith-based and community initiatives, it helps to look back some years. In 1996, President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress declared the “end of welfare as we know it.” Substantial changes were made to the system, but an essential piece of the new paradigm was missing.

Over the previous three decades, an attitude developed had that treated welfare and programs as the concern solely of the federal government. It was an attitude shared by those in both state and federal levels of government as well as community and church organizations. As a result, church and community groups lost some of the “know-how” needed to address community needs. At the same time, many in the federal government ignored or became even hostile to faith-based approaches to societal problems.

We have now entered a new era in our approach to welfare and other social programs. However, to make these new systems work, we must build partnerships between government agencies and community organizations.

The greatest benefit that can come from a state office for faith-based initiatives is the role it can play in rebuilding a culture where faith-based and community organizations can partner with government to address society’s needs. Churches and communities still have the will to care for those in need and to address wrongs. What is needed is an office can assist them. At the same time, such an office can foster relationships between those that best
work with people, one on one, with their problems – community and faith-based organizations -- and those that best provide the resources needed to make that work possible – government agencies.

Drawing from the questions raised earlier, two examples illustrate how such on office could work. Suppose a church saw a need for a food pantry, but was low on funds. The church could contact the office for faith-based and community initiatives that, in turn, could identify possible sources for funding and connect the church to the appropriate government agency.

Suppose, instead, the church wanted to open a soup kitchen and did not need funding. However, the church members were unsure as to whether any health and safety regulations would apply to a soup kitchen, whether the church needed permits, and what agency was responsible for such matters. The office of faith-based and community initiatives could assist the church by directing it to the appropriate agencies and sorting out what regulations might be at issue.

There exist several reasons why the state could benefit from a state office for faith-based and community initiatives, even though a federal office exists. First of all, a state office would bring this building of partnerships to the level closest to the organizations and the problems that those organizations wish to address.

Second, recent trends in federalism have shifted more discretion and responsibility to the states and this trend is likely to continue. Therefore, faith-based and community organizations need to look at the state for both federal and state resources to help with their projects. In fact, according to the federal Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives more federal money is available to faith-based and community organizations from programs administered by states and local governments than from the federal government directly. For example, in 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $25 billion directly to grant applicants, but it gave $160 billion to state and local governments, which in turn made much of the money available to nongovernmental organizations.

Since states have such a central role in this process, it is not surprising that twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, as well as many municipalities have created offices or liaisons for faith-based and community initiatives. Senate Bill 2349 would add North Dakota to the list of states that have seen the wisdom of having such an office.

In response to some of the questions raised regarding constitutional issues, we ask the committee to keep a few points in mind. First, when the government helps faith-based organizations no amount of tax money goes to proselytizing, worship, or religious-based instruction. Government funds only go to constitutionally acceptable expenditures such as room and board.

Second, Senate Bill 2349 does not raise any of these issues, because it does not seek to distribute funds for faith-based initiatives. The funding comes from existing federal and state sources. To the extent there are any constitutional problems with such funding – and we do not believe there are any -- the problems are with the existing state and federal policies.

In fact, an office for faith-based and community initiatives can help prevent constitutional problems by helping faith-based organizations understand that the funding cannot be used for proselytizing, worship, or religious-based instruction. At the same time, the office can ensure that state agencies do not ask applicant organizations to sacrifice their religious identity as a condition for receiving state assistance.

Establishing a state office for faith-based and community initiatives can provide an important step to creating a culture where government and communities can work together to bring hope to those in darkness. We urge a Do Pass recommendation on Senate Bill 2349.