One of the interesting side issues to arise in 2011 has been the Attorney General’s opinion that the state may not make any appropriations of public funds to churches or non-profits.
Actually, the “opinion” itself was exactly correct, if superfluous, because the VA Constitution in Article IV, Section 16 is very clear:
“The General Assembly shall not make any appropriation of public funds to any church or sectarian society or any association which is entirely or partly controlled by any church or sectarian society. Nor shall the General Assembly make any like appropriation to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth.”
There’s no ambiguity in that. The state cannot make an “appropriation” of public funds to a 501(c)(3) organization or a faith-based body. (Ironically, that same constitutional section allows the Assembly to give authority to localities to make such appropriations).
To say that this section has been traditionally ignored in Richmond would be an understatement. There are dozens of budget line items given annually to “non-state” agencies, providing access to everything from dental care to the performing arts. And every year lawmakers, Democratic or Republican, put in more requests for these private appropriations.
This is not mindless pork. These local organizations are critical in today’s transient and multi-lingual Virginia. They fill a social void that the state bureaucracy simply cannot meet (e.g., the center run by Centreville’s Korean Central Presbyterian Church cares for Korean-speaking elderly who would be helpless in a state facility).
These organizations are flexible and they bring their own expertise, as well as private donations, to the table. Only a fool would ignore their public policy benefits.
Right now, the state is dealing with the “Section 16″ issue by having non-state organizations contract with the state, so they don’t directly receive the appropriation. Instead, they get a check from a state agency, so that the funds come out of an agency budget.
This is a solution, but not a great one. Obviously, these organizations are still getting funding, albeit indirectly.
The better solution is to amend the Constitution to specify that the Assembly shall make no appropriation to churches or non-profits, EXCEPT for those non-sectarian public purposes approved by the General Assembly.
Faith-based organizations are on the front lines, especially on issues like homelessness and drug dependency. Local charities like FACETS and Northern Virginia Family Services, which work with churches, are just as important. Should they be 100% privately funded, when they are taking on a state obligation? Of course not. They should be permitted to contract with the state like any other organization.
And please don’t tell me that government traditionally has no role in public art. (Sistine Chapel? Arc de Triomphe? Lincoln Memorial?) Yet without non-profits in Virginia like the Wolf Trap Foundation, our state commitment to the arts would be nil.
The drafters of our Constitution wrote in clear language. The Attorney General was correct to state that it means what it says. But we the right to amend it in a way that is faith-neutral and people-positive.