Faith-Based Organizations Contribute Greatly To Society And Need Institutional Religious Freedom To Make Their Contributions

| January 17, 2020

The Vital Role in Society of Faith-Based Organizations

Here are three quick indicators of the importance of religious organizations and the institutional religious freedom that protects their religious beliefs and practices:

  1.  A 2016 study estimates that houses of worship, religious charities, and faith-related businesses together contribute some $1.2 trillion annually to the American economy—more than the top ten high-tech companies combined.
  2.  When President George W. Bush decided early in his administration to create a major new federal program to provide expansive AIDS prevention and treatment services overseas, the program was designed specifically to extensively utilize grassroots groups, and in particular faith-based organizations, to deliver services. Why did PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) look specifically to religious organizations in this contentious matter of preventing and treating HIV-AIDS? One reason is just how central religious organizations are in some nations—as many as 50 percent of health services in some African nations are provided through faith-based organizations. Another reason is precisely the moral sensitivity of HIV-AIDS: with some training, the U.S. Department of State concluded, faith-based grassroots groups “often design the most culturally appropriate and responsive interventions and have the legitimacy and authority to implement successful programs that deal with normally sensitive subjects.”
  3.  Although President Barack Obama’s administration was often accused of misinterpreting religious freedom to mean only the narrower freedom of worship, the president was a strong supporter of the faith-based initiative, the federal commitment to the full inclusion of religious service organizations as partners in federally funded programs to address social problems. After all, he said, it is not possible for government to respond adequately to pressing social needs without an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.

“All hands.” Indeed, this is an illuminating way to characterize faith-based service organizations (houses of worship that offer help to their neighbors, specialized religious nonprofits, faith-shaped businesses). They are the “hands” of religions: their means and their structures for carrying out their commitments to the service of their neighbors in the world. Religious organizations do a tremendous amount of good. Their institutional religious freedom needs to be protected. They need to be “free to serve.”

Religious Organizations Advance Social Justice and Enlarge the Common Good 

Houses of worship and religious service organizations such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages have served our society from the very beginnings of the American colonies. In doing so, they were continuing in the New World patterns of faith-based service developed in Europe.

In both New World and Old, these institutions and actions were, and are, responses to the mandates for service recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, care for orphans is required in multiple passages; among them, Psalm 82:3, which says, “Defend the weak and the fatherless. . . ,” and James 1:27—“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans. . .” These organizations have continued to serve even as federal, state, and local government programs have multiplied; indeed, they often partner with government programs.

Religious institutions promote “pro-social” attitudes and behaviors, such as service to others and a strong commitment to family; they contribute extensively to the economic and social vitality of their communities; and they offer a large volume and diverse array of services to help the needy and to further develop society.

Diverse Services for a Diverse Public 

Religious organizations contribute strongly and widely to society not only through the volume of services they offer but also through their variety of offerings, as they often serve differently than their nonreligious peers. This different way of serving—for example, a Catholic hospital that, because of church teachings, does not offer elective abortions—is undoubtedly controversial to many, and yet the population that hospitals serve is diverse and includes many patients, Catholic or not, who are pro-life. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes, if all of the doctors and nurses who refused to participate in elective abortions were driven out, the medical profession could not serve the whole population of patients well, because “[m]any patients want access to physicians and other health care providers who do not see the taking of human life as part of a profession devoted to healing.”

In short, a vital aspect of the value added by religious organizations in the area of service delivery—an aspect specifically protected by institutional religious freedom—is that they often provide services differently: education that includes religious components; day care that incorporates religious stories and prayer time, and mirrors the values of parents of a particular faith; drug treatment that adds a spiritual dimension to medical treatment and psychological help; services for the homeless that not only provide emergency sleeping provisions, food, and job-search help but that also work creatively to reconnect homeless people with their families; and many others.

Institutional Religious Freedom 

Religious freedom for organizations is similar to religious freedom for individuals, yet it is, in some ways, distinct. Institutional religious freedom can even, on occasion, appear to be in direct conflict with individual religious freedom. This is because, for an organization to be distinct in some way—for example, to stand consistently and strongly for animal rights—it may need every employee, or at least all key employees, to uphold that distinctive stance, with the result that persons with different views simply are not hired, even though they are otherwise well-qualified.

Indeed, that is PETA’s employment policy. As an organization with “uncompromising stands on animal rights, “it requires its media spokespersons, fundraisers, and the directors of its public campaigns to be consistently vegan. This should be no surprise: why would anyone take seriously PETA’s belief that it is morally wrong to eat animals if its prominent leaders dine at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse or Five Guys? Similarly, many religious organizations only hire people who profess and live consistently with the religious convictions that guide the organization: Catholics who follow church teachings about abortion, Evangelicals who accept the traditional teaching about marriage, Jews who observe kosher practices.

By being religiously selective—or “discriminatory”—in who they hire, these organizations ensure that their personnel embody, rather than conflict with, the organization’s mission and message. They make it more likely for employees to approach planning and decision-making with common values. They even make it possible for the workplace itself to be a form of spiritual community. And while an organization with a religion-based (or vegan-based) employment policy certainly excludes some otherwise suitable employees, the existence of distinctive organizations is a positive good for both employees and people seeking services: when there are diverse organizations, diverse job-seekers are more likely to find a compatible workplace; and diverse customers, patients, and students are more likely to find the particular services and assistance they need and most value.

Originally published by Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.   Used with permission. More information is available at

Category: Faith

About the Author ()

Visit Author Profile to read more articles submitted by this writer.
Email | Website | Stanley Carlson-Thies is the Founder and Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice. As part of this role, he convenes the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom, a multi-faith alliance of social-service, education, and religious freedom organizations that advocates for the religious freedom of faith-based organizations to Congress and the federal government. In addition he is also a Senior Fellow at the Canadian think tank Cardus. He has served on task forces and initiatives under both President Obama and President George W. Bush. Previously, he was Director of Social Policy Studies for CPJ and directed CPJ’s project to track the implementation and impact of the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law. He received the William Bentley Ball Life and Religious Liberty Defense Award from the Center for Law and Religious Freedom and the Christian Legal Society in October 2004. He holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Toronto. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, Christiane.