NEW YORK - November 29 - Thirty-one leading faith-based groups today sent a letter to Congress urging it to lift an onerous restriction on legal aid organizations that prevents them from providing privately financed assistance to families in need.
Signatories to the letter include the National Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches of Christ, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Pax Christi USA, and 26 other faith-based groups.
“We are deeply concerned that this [provision] hurts the families we serve, imposes unnecessary costs, and sets a dangerous precedent for public-private partnerships,” the religious groups wrote. “The law closes the doors of justice for many low-income individuals and families who simply cannot afford to hire a private lawyer to help them in civil matters.”
In the letter to Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Alan Mollohan (D-WV), the groups asked Congress to lift the “private money restriction” that prevents low income families from obtaining legal assistance from private legal aid organizations that receive funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and that wish to spend their own funds – from state, local and private sources – to provide certain critically needed services to low-income families. Reps. Wolf and Mollohan are, respectively, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that allocates funds to LSC.
The restriction interferes with the ability of legal services lawyers to help low-income individuals and families in a wide variety of cases, including unlawful evictions, prisoner reentry, religious asylum, domestic violence, predatory lending, disaster relief, and many others. In 1996, Congress prohibited LSC-funded programs from filing class actions and collecting attorneys’ fees. It also banned LSC-funded programs from representing anyone in prison and many classes of immigrants. As applied by LSC, if a legal aid organization wishes to spend its private funds to provide any of the services that Congress has prohibited, it must first establish a physically separate office with entirely separate staff and equipment.
This compulsory physical separation imposes unnecessary costs on cash-strapped legal aid programs, imposes Congress’s financial priorities on local, state, and private donors, and creates costly obstacles to private philanthropy.
The signatories also expressed concern that the physical separation model could undermine the Faith-Based Initiative. If the physical separation model used for legal aid were to be applied to faith-based groups receiving government funds to provide social services (as may occur if the government continues to defend this model in litigation and policy debates), the result – equally stringent physical separation of secular and faith-based activities – would undermine the public-private partnership model that delivers important social services to low-income communities.
“This unique alliance underscores the commitment – on the left and on the right – to the fundamental American principle of equal justice for all, regardless of economic status,” said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center. To view the letter and a full list of signatories, click here. For more information about the private money restriction, or to join the growing campaign to restore justice to legal aid funding, click here.