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Church and State Collide in the Nonprofit Sector


There’s an interesting battle going on in local Washington, D.C., politics that could have national implications.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote today on a historic measure to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. The proposal has generated considerable opposition, but none more public and forceful than from leaders of the Catholic Church. Several weeks ago the church announced that if the legislation passes, it will terminate the $20 million or so in contracts that Catholic Charities has with the city for funding of homeless shelters, medical clinics, and other charitable enterprises that Catholic Charities operates because it believes the proposed legislation forces the Church to violate its teachings. According to the Washington Post, “Eleventh-hour talks were being held Monday to see whether the law’s wording could be tweaked to keep the Church from having to recognize same-sex marriages by, among other things, offering benefits to gay employees’ partners.” The Post article suggests that this is an issue on a “collision course” between “religious liberties and civil rights.”

But there is another collision course to be concerned about. Increasingly our society relies on nonprofit organizations to deliver desperately needed social services. Consider these three trends. One, for many years now, government agencies having been outsourcing much of the delivery of social services to nonprofit organizations. Two, we know from the Urban Institute’s analysis that government contracts for services is the single largest source of revenue for the nonprofit sector. And three, nonprofits with religious affiliations are increasingly providing social services and more often subsidized by government contracts.

I asked Chuck McLean, GuideStar’s VP of research, what we could learn from the GuideStar database. He noted that religious organizations are not required to file with the IRS so information is hard to come by, but he reports that about 120,000 religious organizations have voluntarily supplied information to GuideStar or the IRS, most of them social services, health services, or education organizations. This is less than 30 percent of the estimated 400,000 religious organizations in the United States, so it’s not really possible to draw any solid conclusions. It’s safe to say that religious organizations have long been a vital part of the charitable sector. Just think of all the universities and hospitals and homeless shelters in any major city run by religiously affiliated organizations. We couldn’t do without them. Other than the issue of abortion, which has had long running national and legal implications for religious insitutions, I can’t remember too many incidences like this one. Is the situation in Washington an anomaly or should we expect more of these collisions? And what does that mean for the future of the delivery of social services?

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Policy Same-Sex Marriage