What Makes Partnership Possible? An Overview of Court Decisions, Legislation, and Presidential Initiatives

This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations the sacred sector and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.


Returning citizens work toward a substance abuse-free life at a Minneapolis-based Islamic rehab center. Community members gather to learn about predatory lending in a program organized by a historic African-American church in New Orleans. At-risk teens in Baltimore receive arts and sport classes in a Bahá’í community center.

All of these snapshots have one thing in common – they are the fruits of a growing partnership between faith-based organizations – the sacred sector –  and the government to provide care to those who need it, regardless of religious affiliation.

Whether it’s national conversations on adoption, disaster relief, education, health, food security, jobs, veteran care, or environmental protection, we are often unaware of the contributions of faith-based organizations (FBOs) and the ways in which they partner with government. Let’s take a look back at the history that makes sacred-public partnerships possible and the impact that they can have on communities. 


The partnerships between the sacred sector and government have not been formed on whims; they have been crafted over the past 20 years as a result of Supreme Court decisions, innovative legislation, and presidential initiatives.

Supreme Court Decisions

Landmark Supreme Court decisions broadened our nation’s vision of what government’s protection of the freedom of religion meant for religious organizations serving society. Because the First Amendment both directs Congress to protect the exercise of religion and prohibits the establishment of religion, historically there were questions as to whether it was legitimate for government funds to be awarded to faith-based organizations to serve vulnerable populations. This lack of clarity prevented qualified groups from contributing to efforts like poverty-reduction, while leaving beneficiaries unsure of their ability to receive effective service.

However in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), the Court’s decision established that funds granted to religious organizations serving society were not in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion. More recent decisions, notably the Trinity Lutheran Church decision (2017), have strengthened the constitutional argument for partnerships.

Legislation: Charitable Choice Expansion

The Supreme Court’s ruling that government funding of FBOs was constitutional came just as a section of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act –  Charitable Choice – entered the national conversation. Charitable Choice instructed government officials to award social service funding to the most qualified organizations, regardless of religious affiliation. The inclusion of the Charitable Choice provision in federal law indicated government’s affirmation that FBOs play an important role in serving communities’ diverse needs.

According to the Charitable Choice principles, while organizations may maintain their religious identity, they are also responsible for respecting the religious rights of all beneficiaries. These guidelines apply not only to government grants and contracts, but also indirect funds such as vouchers, which allow community members to choose their preferred social service, which may or may not be a FBO.

Presidential Initiatives

When Charitable Choice first became law, few religious nonprofits, congregations, synagogues, mosques, and community outreach ministries were aware of the opportunities for collaboration with government. 

To respond to this lack of information and innovation, the George W. Bush administration created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Stanley Carlson-Thies, senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, explained:

The faith-based initiative is based on a simple idea: the government’s social efforts will be most effective and efficient in partnership with religious and non-religious local organizations, many of which have been serving long before government programs were even considered. Civil society organizations serve people and neighborhoods in need, and can do so with special effectiveness because they are local, nimble, and have earned social capital with their communities. Many of them are faith-based and thus bring an extra dimension to the services they provide, and the relationships they develop.

The White House Office oversaw and coordinated outreach and administrative reform efforts by faith-based Centers in a dozen federal agencies, including the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Agency for International Development. President Obama continued the initiative, which was renamed the  White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Under the Trump administration the initiative, which currently does not have a White House office nor appointed official, is known as the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The departmental Centers continue to operate, now with this new name.

According to Carlson-Thies, core responsibilities of the Centers include: ensuring equal treatment regulations (based on the Charitable Choice principles) are followed by federal, state, and local officials; educating nonprofits about these rules and acting as a liaison with government officials; helping to redesign government programs to support, not replace, civil society solutions; focusing on local solutions that work, and helping those local organizations become more sustainable and effective.

Together, Supreme Court decisions, legislation like Charitable Choice, and presidential initiatives provide the foundation for partnership between the sacred sector and government. But what does this partnership look like in action?


 Through collaboration, faith-based organizations and government contribute to the common good, improving society’s well-being in the midst of an opioid crisis, in the aftermath of hurricanes, and during spikes in unemployment. This is no accident: the principle of public justice mandates that government is a vital contributor to society’s flourishing, doing this in part by promoting a diverse, well-equipped civil society.

Sacred-public partnerships are valuable because even well-structured government programs struggle to closely serve communities in need. Faith-based organizations often intimately know their communities’ needs and have creative ideas for holistic solutions. They are often able to build a bridge of trust in communities and help them become aware of government programs they can benefit from. For example, only 67 percent of those eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) access it, with seniors and Latinos having disproportionately low-participation. In response, Catholic Charities operates SNAP outreach programs throughout the country, fielding questions and reducing the stigma attached to receiving benefits. Similarly, the Jewish nonprofit HIAS helps refugees navigate transportation and language barriers to receiving food and housing assistance during resettlement.

Where the government is already providing social assistance, the sacred sector contributes to fill seasonal gaps in service. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides free or reduced-price lunch to over 22 million children during the school year. But in the summer months, only three million children receive meals through the same program. Humanitarian agencies like Islamic Relief USA, alongside daycares and emergency shelters, partner with the USDA to prepare and provide those missing meals, thereby reducing financial strain on families and ensuring that children do not go hungry.


Collaboration between the sacred sector and public sector is not solely financial; the two sectors exchange information that strengthens their ability to respond to social challenges. State and federal governments operate and contribute to databases and directories on everything from adoption and foster care to community service opportunities. As FBOs take advantage of these resources, they are able to offer feedback that improves government’s data collection, creating a better tool for all involved.

This unique partnership also provides government with a closer look at local issues. Meanwhile, FBOs benefit from government agencies’ technical assistance seminars on topics like managing finances, strategic planning, and measuring success. For example, summits convened by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, helped form over 23 coalitions of faith-based and community-based organizations working on mental health, substance abuse, and anti-violence issues. The shared insights of these groups and others are helping to create more transparent, responsive organizations that  address the complex social challenges of our time.

With over 116,000 faith-based organizations in the United States, the future holds great promise for collaboration between the sacred sector and government. Still, important questions remain. How do we ensure an even playing field for all FBOs? How should we respond to the strong influence of individual presidents on the relationship government has with FBOs? Despite these challenges, in a hurting world, it is more important than ever that those inspired by their faith to serve the vulnerable have the space to do so. 

 Comfort Sampong works as a Communications Specialist at the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras and is a former intern with the Center for Public Justice. She graduated with degrees in Economics and International Development from Calvin College. 


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