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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Obama’s Charitable Choice Executive Order Hits the Mark, Says Charitable Choice Creator, Law Professor

Nov. 18, 2010

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst,, 573-882-6217

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In an executive order signed Nov. 17, President Obama expanded the Charitable Choice funding parameters to more federal social service programs, which permits additional federal grant awards without regard to religion. Carl Esbeck, the R.B. Price Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law and progenitor of the Charitable Choice program, believes Obama’s order is a positive step toward enabling the federal government’s role in aiding faith-based charities.

“President Obama’s executive order sets out a clear and positive set of principles and confirms a three-administration process of clarifying and confirming the rightful, equal place of faith-based services when the government is involved,” said Esbeck, who is an expert on separation of church and state law. “We now have a seal of approval by three presidents that this is consistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Charitable Choice, an idea first coined by Esbeck, is a federal set of parameters enacted during the Clinton administration that was designed to govern funding to religious social-service organizations. The program allows faith-based providers to compete for federal funds on the same basis as any other provider. The program ensures that faith-based providers are neither excluded nor included due solely to their religious affiliations while keeping their internal affairs free of government interference.

Esbeck says that while Obama’s new executive order seeks to better define the explicitly religious activities that have to be kept separate from services that the government funds, it also affirms that faith-based organizations can offer separate privately funded, voluntary religious activities using private funding.

Esbeck notes that this executive order actually makes very few changes, but rather codifies many of the requirements that were included in the previous administration’s practices. Esbeck believes it is truly remarkable that the program has remained so similar over the years despite the span of three presidential administrations.

“It is amazing that the program goes from Clinton to Bush to Obama and the only change is expansion of the same ideas,” Esbeck said. “It is a truly bipartisan idea to survive the great shifts in political ideology that we have seen in the White House since Charitable Choice was first enacted in 1996.”

Esbeck first pitched the idea of Charitable Choice to then-Senator John Ashcroft in 1994. The program eventually became an integral part of the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Act, and later, was a part of three additional federal welfare programs signed by President Clinton. In 2001, Esbeck worked in the U.S. Department of Justice on constitutional aspects of the faith-based initiative before returning to his professorship at the MU School of Law.