ABP reported Feb. 11 a bit of good news in the ongoing struggle to maintain healthy boundaries between church and state: a special panel has recommended to President Obama that churches wanting to receive federal funding for social ministries should set up a separate non-profit corporation to handle those funds.
That makes perfect sense, both from a stewardship perspective and from a first amendment perspective. On the stewardship end, it’s both smart and accountable to keep money from different sources completely separate — and not just in different line items of the same budget.
From the first amendment angle, it’s axiomatic that tax-payer funding has no place in church coffers. Mixing money doesn’t necessarily imply wrongdoing, but it’s a bad approach in principle. It opens a big can of ugly worms that range from influence peddling to political payoffs and (no doubt) lots of things I haven’t thought of.
Critics who complain that creating a separate 501(c)3 corporation creates an unnecessary stumbling block and makes it harder for churches to get money are reaching for excuses. Getting recognition as a 501(c)3 is neither difficult nor expensive. And, having separate organizational governance simply makes it easier to keep things on the up and up: it’s the responsible thing to do.
Given what seems to be a clearly superior rationale for the creation of separate non-profit organizations, it’s surprising that the panel was divided on the issue, voting by a narrow 13-12 margin to endorse the recommendation. The full article is worth reading.
On the whole, I think non-profit ministries are most successful when they’re fully led and fully funded by the same people who have the vision for a ministry, whether they’re leading it or supporting it. Getting government assistance for social ministries is not the ideal. To be acceptable at all, public funding should be handled transparently — and by someone other than church officials.