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CNA Staff, Jul 28, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Religious groups must have equal access to public grant programs, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced in new guidance issued on Monday.

The guidance follows the recent Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue,  earlier this month, which ruled that faith-based groups could not be barred from public funding solely on account of their religious status.

The July 28 guidance clarifies that faith-based groups offering secular services cannot be disqualified from federal assistance purely on their religious status. To do so would violate the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, the DOJ said.

The aim of the clarification is to “help ensure that faith-based organizations can compete on an equal footing with secular organizations for Department grants,” said Claire McCusker Murray, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General and co-Vice-Chair of the DOJ’s Religious Liberty Task Force.

The agency noted that “faith-based organizations have a right to equal participation in the Department’s programs,” and that they “are eligible, on the same basis as any other organization, to participate in any Department program for which they are otherwise eligible.”

At issue in the decision was Montana’s no-aid clause in its state constitution, which prohibited public funding of “sectarian” causes or churches or any institution “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.” The Court ruled that applicants to religious schools could not be barred from using a public scholarship program paid for by tax-deductible donations.

The DOJ also underlined on Monday that faith-based grant recipients still retain their independence from the government in their religious mission and internal governance, but the groups cannot use the grants to cover “explicitly religious activities” including “worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.”

The agency’s largest grant-funding component, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), has provided information for religious groups which are considering applying for grants; the office awarded $5 billion in grants last year.

Faith-based groups have already applied for and received grants in recent years. For instance, Catholic Charities, USA received a $2.8 million grant from the DOJ for its juvenile mentoring programs, from the 2016 through 2018 fiscal years; it received another $2 million grant for the 2019 through 2021 fiscal years.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Venice received a $925,000 grant from 2020 through the end of 2022 for services for trafficking victims. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Oakland received a $450,000 block grant from the DOJ for the 2020 through 2022 fiscal years for missing children’s assistance.