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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Equal Treatment and the Faith-Based and Community Initiative

Many organizations seek guidance as to whether they can continue the religious component of their total service delivery if they receive HUD funding. This question generally falls under the heading of "Equal Treatment." HUD, along with other Federal Agencies, has put Equal Treatment Regulations in place to insure that faith-based and secular non-profit organizations are aware of their rights and are treated equally in the grants process. Below you will find some frequently asked questions on this topic, with general answers. If you have any doubt or need specific information after reading this FAQ and the regulations that follow it, please contact the Center.

1. What is Equal Treatment all about?

Equal Treatment is the set of regulations, here at HUD and in all agencies with Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, that seeks to ensure that

  • Your organization is not discriminated against because it is, or is not, a faith-based organization;
  • Your organization is not favored because it is, or is not, a faith-based organization; and
  • Each non-profit organization, regardless of its size, competes on an equal footing with all organizations seeking HUD funding.

2. Does a faith-based organization need to mask its religious identity in order to receive HUD funds?

No. Faith-based organizations that receive federal assistance may keep their religious name; continue to carry out religious activities; keep and display religious signs and symbols inside and outside their facilities; continue to use religion as a basis to select their board members (including members of the clergy); and otherwise govern themselves on a religious basis.

3. Can we conduct religious activities for our HUD- funded program recipients?

Organizations that receive direct HUD funds may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytizing, as a part of the program or services funded by HUD. Inherently religious activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs, activities, or services supported by direct HUD funds.

Additionally, and this is very important, participation in religious activities must be voluntary for your HUD-funded service beneficiaries. They should have no feeling or sense that their participation in inherently religious activities that are separate in time and/or place from HUD-funded activities, or even participation in something like prayer before a meal, is somehow required for them in order to receive HUD-funded services.

Also, program beneficiaries must understand that they are free to participate or not, not only in your organization's religious activities, but in your organization's religious affiliation itself. That is, your HUD-funded services must be open to all who are eligible for them, whether they are members of your church, denomination, or religion; or not.

4. Can our organization hire along religious lines?

It depends. In most HUD programs, you may hire along religious lines. The CDBG and HOME Programs contain statutory provisions that impose certain nondiscrimination requirements on all grantees, which mean hiring on the basis of religion is prohibited in these programs. If your organization believes that it is substantially burdened by this prohibition, relief may be available under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, pronounced RIF-ra). Additional information on RFRA is available here. For guidance specific to HUD programs, please contact the HUDCenter.

5. If we are a faith-based organization, will we be subject to greater government scrutiny than secular recipients?

No. Just as faith-based organizations are neither favored nor hindered when making application for HUD funds, they are held to exactly the same standard as non-faith-based organizations, neither higher nor lower, in oversight and monitoring.

If you believe that this not the case, and that your organization is being held to a different standard, contact the Center and ask for assistance.

If your organization is under scrutiny, there can be several reasons why-including that HUD is carrying out its responsibility to do to routine monitoring. It is essential to keep careful financial and other records in order to be able to show clearly and concisely that HUD funding was expended on HUD-funded activities only; that no HUD dollars were utilized in advancing your organization's religious message; and that program participants clearly understand the voluntary character of their participation in your organization's religious service offering.

HUD's monitoring and oversight activities are meant to be helpful, not punitive. It wants to offer guidance that is corrective, not punitive, and will allow, where appropriate, you time to comply. If you doubt that this is the case, please contact the Center and ask for assistance.

6. Why does this Initiative exist in the first place?

The Initiative exists to place faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs), especially grassroots ones, on a level playing field with all other grant applicants, and to look for innovative ways to expand or enhance existing service delivery, in order that all persons eligible for HUD assistance may receive that assistance from the organizations most qualified to help in their particular circumstances.

FBCOs include religious and non-religious non-profit groups that provide social services; vary greatly in size and resources operate in the widest range of communities, from the most urban to the most rural; and identify themselves with both community initiatives and objectives and religious or non-religious traditions or philosophies. Experience has shown that they provide unique access to underprivileged communities, high-need individuals, and community leaders; close cultural connections to local communities; dedicated volunteers; deep personal commitment to the individuals being served; individualized and supportive services; and services that effectively complement federal programs.

Yet?small, grassroots FBCOs often did not participate in funding streams open to them by assumptions that they could not partner with government because of religious identity. And so government either excluded faith-based groups, but not secular ones, from certain programs, or it conditioned its assistance on an FBCO's willingness to mask religious identity and suspend certain activities, although the law did not require the masking and suspension.

Additionally, grant-making processes were designed in ways that benefited prior grantees, effectively limiting innovative approaches, and limited outreach to non-traditional partners. Small or novice FBCOs often lacked knowledge, information, or experience with the federal grant-making process.

The result was that certain segments of intended HUD-assisted service recipients went unserved, because those most qualified to help could not easily receive the funding that would allow the service. The Initiative exists to identify these barriers and level the playing field so that the most qualified applicants, regardless of faith affiliation, receive funding to address the needs of their communities.

7. But what about Separation of Church and State?

The Supreme Court has "consistently rejected...the argument that 'any program which in some manner aids an institution with a religious affiliation' automatically violates the Establishment Clause" (Mueller v. Allen, 1983). HUD’s program requirements were carefully crafted to ensure compliance with the First Amendment. As long as your organization is using HUD funds in accordance with these program requirements-including not using HUD dollars to advance your organization's religious mission or the religious component of your entire service delivery, and can account clearly that HUD dollars are being spent only on eligible activities--HUD believes there is no violation of the Separation Clause.

In federal programs utilizing vouchers which allow the service beneficiary to choose a qualified service deliverer, intermingling of secular and religious messages is permissible, as long as the options for service provider include valid secular options; but there are no voucher programs at HUD in which this is the case.

Thus, as long as your organization follows program rules, including the separation in time/place requirement, and program beneficiaries understand the completely voluntary nature of their participation in your organization's religious service offering - and your organization possesses the capacity to deliver the services for which HUD funds you -- HUD welcomes you to its competitive process.

8. How can our organization receive more specific guidance?

HUD offers assistance in a number of ways. The Center participates in regional White House conferences and state-sponsored conferences which contain presentations on this material. You can also contact your regional or local faith-based liaison, and you can find contact information on our website. You can contact the Center and someone here will be glad to assist you.