A new suit poses a challenge to federal charitable choice guidlines and may have a chilling effect on Christian social service ministries seeking government contracts, evangelical leaders say.

The American Jewish Congress (AJC) has brought the suit against the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which operates the AmeriCorps service program. The AJC suit argues that CNCS is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it allows AmeriCorps members to teach religion while they work for faith-based organizations. Court hearings will begin later this year.

"The lawsuits, or the threat of lawsuits, brought by these groups [have] a potential chilling effect on the faith-based nonprofit community," said Mark Howard, general counsel of World Vision. "The prospect of being named a defendant in such a high-profile lawsuit, with the attendant costs of litigation, will dissuade many organizations from pursuing this source of government funding for social programs, and I think that is part of the strategy of these groups."

Said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, "The American Jewish Congress is trolling for cases with facts and legal issues" to challenge current charitable choice law.

Legal, political confusion

World Vision attorney Brian Vasey said the federal law creating AmeriCorps forbids nonprofits from using religious criteria when selecting AmeriCorps members. But the 1996 charitable-choice law sets aside federal hiring regulations for faith-based organizations, allowing them to employ only people who share their religious beliefs.

The result is legal confusion. Last year the House of Representatives passed H.R. 7 to support President ...

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