Faith-based service programs help improve our communities. That type of assistance is even more necessary in communities that face the scourge of gang activity. Keeping gangs from preying upon our youth requires all hands on deck.
That is why FORGE Youth Mentoring exists. They may not be the whole answer to the problem of gangs, but they are at least a part of it. And they should be — alongside government services, schools, and anyone else in the community with the conviction it takes to help kids reach their potential.
Benton County, Washington recognized the value of FORGE, granting them thousands of dollars in aid as a part of the county’s innovative Gang & Crime Prevention Initiative. But a group of “secularist, humanists, and free-thinkers” disliked the idea of taxpayer dollars finding their way to FORGE, a group that makes no apology for operating from a faith-based perspective. The group complained to Benton County officials, accusing the county of violating the law, the Washington Constitution, and even the U.S. Constitution.
Their demands led county officials to consider requiring FORGE and all of its volunteer mentors to adhere to its rules on nondiscrimination or risk losing the grant funds. But Benton County could not deputize every FORGE volunteer — and just because FORGE receives a public grant does not mean Benton County can draft FORGE’s employees into county service.
County officials were sensitive to the complaints, but also to the good work FORGE provides. FORGE happily answered all the questions raised by Benton County and committed, in writing, to the use of the funds for the intended purpose: Helping kids escape the grips of gangs and teaching them to lead a productive life.
First Liberty Institute represents FORGE and we explained to county officials that the law does not require FORGE to be stripped of the grant funding. In fact, the opposite is true.
In a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2017, the justices explained that state officials could not exclude a Christian church from a grant program just because the church was a religious organization, like FORGE. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly stood for the principle that disqualifying an otherwise eligible recipient because that recipient is religious is, in fact, discrimination.
In other words, Benton County could not lawfully bar FORGE from competing on equal terms for grants and other social services contracts because it is a religious organization with a religious identity. That would be rank religious discrimination and forbidden by the U.S. Constitution and the State of Washington’s Constitution. So, if Benton County were to force FORGE to choose between hiring mentors who share its religious convictions and competing on equal terms with those who don’t, the county would be in violation of both state and federal constitutions.
Benton County officials understand the important service FORGE provides. More than that, county officials understand that FORGE is an essential part of meeting the needs of its community. That is why they patiently listened to all sides and, after reviewing the law carefully, rejected demands by out-of-state activists who would rather at-risk kids have no mentor than one who shares the convictions of a faith-based organization.
Welcoming faith-based service programs into our communities can be one of many tools to combat the social ills so many of our communities face — like gangs, hunger, abuse, and the like. Benton County is a good example of such public-private partnerships. In a day where local budgets are stretched to the breaking point, it makes no sense to exclude those who are willing to link arms with local elected leaders to ensure the success of the kids in their community. This sort of public service should be celebrated, not litigated.
Thanks to the careful thought shown by Benton County leaders, FORGE — and others — are working together as part of a diverse coalition to improve their community. The taxpayers of Benton County should commend their local officials for this common-sense approach to governing.