Faith-Based Organizations, SOGI, and the Federal Government

Chain of people holding hands, paper cut-outs

Last summer, the Obama Administration proposed a rule adding sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI—get used to the acronym) to the list of classes protected against discrimination by federal contractors. In so doing, it built upon other anti-discrimination executive orders issued by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. The difference between the Obama Administration’s rule and those promulgated by its predecessors is that the latter explicitly provided exemptions for religious employers, who were permitted to engage in mission-sensitive hiring even if they provided goods and services to the federal government. Under the old rules, a faith-based organization could hire co-religionists to work, for example, in a federally-funded Welfare-to-Work program (and, of course, could quite rightly not discriminate in providing benefits to clients). Under the new rules, finalized in April, there is no exemption for faith-based organizations, many of whom would seem to have to abandon their historical commitments to sexual fidelity in the context of man-woman marriage if they wish to continue to be eligible for federal contracts.

And now the other (or another, perhaps the first of many) shoe is about to drop: there is word that the rule applied to federal contractors will soon be extended to grant recipients, at least in respect to one area of federal activity, humanitarian aid. As this move has not received a lot of attention (perhaps designedly so), it is not clear how far-reaching this change is. At the moment, it seems relatively safe to say that eligibility for some grants will likely be conditioned on a renunciation of traditional religious teaching (not just Christian, but also Jewish and Muslim) regarding human sexuality.

What prevents the Obama Administration from extending this requirement to additional categories of grant recipients is not at all clear. Or rather it is clear: only pushback from the friends of religious freedom will prevent the federal government from eventually conditioning all federal aid on “non-discrimination,” even at the expense of fidelity to traditional religious teaching.

How far could this eventually go? Consider, for example, the extraordinarily heavy dependence of most colleges and universities (there are a few noteworthy exceptions, among them Grove City, Hillsdale, and Wyoming Catholic) on federal aid. Suppose that colleges and universities that included behavioral expectations in their statements of faith were told that they could not hold their employees to these expectations, as doing so would constitute SOGI-based discrimination. Some might stand firm and join the proud ranks of the non-federally funded. Others, I fear, would feel compelled to assure their (merely) institutional survival by giving in. The result would likely be a much less genuinely diverse array of higher education options and a loss of a great intellectual and moral source of religious life in this country.

And that’s not the end of it. Don’t forget the brief exchange between Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in the oral argument for the Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage) case. Under questioning by Justice Alito, Verrilli conceded that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage could or would be an issue. For those who regard tax exempt status not as an acknowledgement of freedom from state interference but as an instrument of public policy, aimed at promoting the public good (as they conceive it), it’s only a few baby steps from denying government funding to revoking a tax exemption. I’d like to think that many of us will continue to give at the same level to the charities we favor regardless of whether we receive a tax break for doing so, but not all of us will. At the very least, roughly 30% of that charitable contribution would likely be taken by taxes, and that’s only from the contributor. Another chunk would be taken from the formerly tax-exempt institution. Is your favorite faith-based institution prepared to deal with the loss of a significant portion of its annual budget?

Some might argue that it’s healthy and bracing for faith-based institutions to get back to basics, to have a fresh and direct experience of what it means to be a pilgrim, sojourner, or (as Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of putting it) resident alien. Perhaps. Even more, it might be clarifying for the soulless Leviathan of the ever-expanding modern regulatory and administrative state that would reveal itself for the secularizing monster it really is. Perhaps.

But pardon me for continuing to harbor the hope that genuine religious pluralism that flourishes in a healthy civil society is good not only for the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, schools, colleges, universities, and charities that inhabit it, but also for the country that plays host to them.

That is what is threatened by the Obama Administration’s narrow and crabbed vision of, if not actual disrespect for, religious liberty. We face the prospect of a secular (which is not the same as neutral) state whose reach into our lives and communities is constantly expanding, not as a partner with distinctive and diverse local institutions and organizations, but as their master, dictating the terms on which they will serve the needs of those who use and depend upon them. The genuinely distinctive—religiously and morally traditional—institutions will be treated, not as partners, but as adversaries, at best pushed to the margins, at worst run out of business.

I hope and expect all institutions will love and serve all of God’s children, but will defend their right to do so in ways that are faithful to their understanding of Scripture.

GA Needs to Move from School Choice to Educational Choice


Last Friday I had the opportunity to address a subcommittee of the Governor’s Education Reform Commission.  This particular subcommittee is tasked with making recommendations on how best to expand educational options in Georgia, or, more plainly, addressing the question,

“What sort of choices should parents have in how their children are educated?”

I was able to tell the subcommittee how I (along with others) lobbied back in 2007 for the passage of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, our state’s first state-funded private school choice program.  We came back in 2008 and lobbied for the creation of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows individual and corporate donors to receive a tax credit for donations made to non-profits who give scholarships to kids leaving public schools for private options.

Because of these two programs, more than 16,000 students in Georgia now attend the private school their parents chose for them.  Many of these children and their families share stories of lives changed because of the opportunities these scholarships provided.  Kids that were struggling in the public school they were zoned for are now thriving in an environment chosen by their parents that better meets their individual needs.

But while 16,000 students have found hope in the opportunity afforded by choice, thousands more languish behind because they are either not eligible for a state-funded scholarship or because the tax credit program is capped, limiting the number of students who can participate.

The 2007/2008 legislative session was an exciting time.  Georgia suddenly popped onto the national education choice scene in a big way.  We may not have been a leader back then, but at least we were finally on the team.

But as I shared with the subcommittee, we haven’t done much since.  As a state we had our moment on the national stage, but it was a bit of a flash and then a fizzle.*

We’ve watched year after year as other states create new educational choice programs or expand existing ones.  These states are whizzing right past us to the top of the pack, leaving us in an all-too-familiar place when it comes to education: hanging near the back.

Scott Jensen, a colleague of mine in the school choice arena who serves as the Senior Policy Advisor for the American Federation for Children, explained to the committee, “You (Georgia) have the slowest growth rate of any program in the country. Because there is none.”

I’ve been through seven legislative sessions since the creating of our programs, advocating each time for “more” – more choices for families to meet the specific needs of their kids because those kids’ futures depend on them getting a good education.

It’s not as though offering educational options to families is some sort of competition between GA and other states. But it is true that our kids are competing, and not just with other states – they are competing in a global marketplace.

I bet if we allow ourselves a moment of honesty, most of us could agree on a couple of things:

1. Our kids deserve a 21st century education that actually prepares them for college, a career, and life.

2. Every child is different and has unique learning needs.

The great news is, in the 21st century, there are so many tools that previous generations of students, teachers, and parents just didn’t have at their disposal:  digital classes and programs, special schools to address specific learning challenges, schools with a focus on the arts, schools with a focus on science and technology, innovative home study programs, etc.

This is actually why I’m not sure the phrase “school choice” really covers the gamut of options anymore.  Often, the choices that make the most sense for a family aren’t really schools in the traditional sense.  Rather, they are programs, services, therapies or other options that go well beyond the school walls.

With such a diversity of options on the market, what keeps families stuck in the same old school, or the same old rut?  It’s usually one of two things:

1. State policy that prevents them from choosing a different educational path.

2. A lack of resources to afford the existing options or move to a different area of town with better educational offerings.

So, what can we do about these challenges?  At Georgia Center for Opportunity, we are all about breaking down barriers to opportunity.  Together, we can work to:

1. Change state policy to allow families more flexibility with regard to educational options, prioritizing the specific needs of a child over arbitrary school district boundaries.

2. Remove some of the financial obstacles by allowing families to use the money the state designated to educate their child for another school or program of their choice that better meets their child’s needs.

I am weary but hopeful that 2016 will be the end of the lack of legislative action to address the need for more educational options.  I hope that the Governor’s Education Reform Commission makes thoughtful but bold recommendations to expand educational choice in Georgia.  I hope the Governor and the legislature take those ideas and turn them into reality for our families.  I hope, because for far too many kids, a way out, a way forward, or a new way of doing things is their only hope to receive the best education they can get.

Georgia needs to get back in the game, step up to the plate, and make sure we are doing all we can to set our students up for a WIN in this game of life.


*(Actually, we’ve done a lot of good in providing additional public school choices through charter schools, and we’ve had some exciting public school reforms, but here I am focused on what we do for families who need an option outside of the public system in which they are zoned).