New OMB guidelines provide greater religious options


The Office of Management and Budget issued tighter guidelines this month detailing how far federal agencies must go to ensure that they do not interfere with a person’s freedom of religion.

Of particular interest are provisions enabling recipients of any federal program to understand what their choices are and what organizations using federal funds to administer these programs must do to guarantee that no one feels uncomfortable.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called the guidelines “a huge step forward.” While it hasn’t in the past been mandatory for anyone to sit through religious education, worship or proselytizing in order to participate in federal programs, the guidelines issued Aug. 2 are designed to make sure this never happens.

So if a Jewish person eligible for a special job or literacy training or food or health benefits is told to go to a church to receive that benefit, that person can ask to be switched to another, similar program. And that program must be in a person’s geographic area and “not a 100 miles away kind of thing,” Saperstein noted.

Some social service programs offered by nonprofits are operated in a church, which can be uncomfortable for some recipients, and Saperstein said those offended by any program have the right to request to be transferred to a different one. That person also can check online to see what is available. Prior to the new guidelines, the programs were not listed for all to see.

This transparency will not only help individuals find the best program but also will enable groups like the RAC to know what is being offered and to “check for patterns” of abuse, Saperstein noted.

Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said the guidelines are designed to make sure those participating in government-funded programs “are aware they can request a different” provider that is not necessarily faith-based. The government chooses groups to run certain programs, and it is necessary to guarantee that the programs are “separated in time or location” from religious endeavors, she noted.

“We want to insure beneficiaries are never under the impression they have to participate” in anything that goes against their beliefs, she said.

Rogers explained in her blog that the guidelines “will help agencies to ensure that these partnerships respect religious freedom guarantees and work effectively for faith-based communities.” The guidelines are designed so that “decisions about federal grants are not made on the basis of an organization’s religious affiliation, or because of a lack of any religious affiliation,” Rogers wrote.

At the same time, religious organizations are reassured under the guidelines that they can still receive federal funds while continuing “practices like selecting board members on a religious basis,” Rogers wrote.

The Secular Coalition for America called the guidelines “a step in the right direction” that will increase transparency by publically posting a list of organizations receiving federal financial assistance.

“The Secular Coalition advocates that federal funds should in no way be diverted to religious organizations — especially those exempted from filing the most basic financial tax forms and thus largely free from oversight, or those who discriminate in hiring on the basis of religions,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the coalition. “Going forward we will be able to see which organizations are receiving taxpayer funding, how that funding is being used, and monitor for improper use,” she wrote in a press release.

The guidelines were designed to include recommendations from a 50-page report emanating from a diverse group that included representation from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the RAC.

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