Are Clergy Public Servants?

by Rabbi James I. Greene

A question has been thrust to the forefront of the religious community this week. The question is this: Are clergy and other professionals within religious non-profits truly public servants? Is the work they perform equal to those who work for other 501(c)3 organizations?

Since 2007, the federal government has maintained the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness” (PSLF) program. This program was designed to forgive the student loan debt of long-time public service or non-profit employees after they made 10 years of payments. The original law included clear language on who would qualify:

“Qualifying employment is any employment with a federal, state, or local government agency, entity, or organization or a non-profit organization that has been designated as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.” (1)

On January 31st of this year, the Department of Education introduced new language that now restricts participation in the program. The new language essentially excludes clergy and other employees of faith institutions. “Generally, the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. However, if you work for a non-profit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing (2).” The PSLF program was designed to encourage public service. I am deeply troubled by the exclusion of clergy and other employees of religious organizations from this program.

Congress never included this religious exclusion in any part of the original legislation. Additionally, the Department of Education did not exclude clergy or religious service employees in their regulations, issued in October of 2008. So, after telling the public that almost all non-profit service qualifies, even going out of their way to tell us that neither the work nor the nature of the organization mattered, the Department of Education slipped in this exclusion without any public comment or process.

In fact, the federal government already recognizes the important public service that clergy provide. The government subsidizes loans for seminary students, allows graduates of seminaries and other religious colleges to consolidate student loan debt through a federal program, and recognizes synagogues and other houses of worship as non-profits through the Internal Revenue Service without question, making no distinction between secular and faith-based organizations. By extending these various benefits to faith organizations the federal government already recognizes the role that faith organizations provide to the public service. It is simply unjust for the government to provide help to people of faith as they pursue the higher education necessary to serve the organizations of our community and then exclude them from the PSLF at a time when they are most at need and engaged in the important work of performing social services.

Most importantly, clergy and other people of faith serve the entire public good. I work for the Jewish Community Center, where a full half of our membership is not Jewish. Our programs touch the entire South Bay community. Clergy and other faith community leaders are often the first line of assistance to those in need and the last support structure for the most vulnerable in our communities – regardless of religious affiliation. Particularly at a time when governmental agencies rely more and more on the faith community for desperately needed social services, it is wrong to penalize those who choose to provide these social services in a faith-based setting.

Faith-based institutions and houses of worship are a force for good and provide an incredible service to our communities. This new language places an undue burden on people of faith at a time when we need to encourage more people, not fewer, to get involved and lend a hand. Most importantly, as noted by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield in The Washington Post, “While church-separation is a wise and necessary policy, separation is not about discrimination against, or hostility toward, religion. The regulation, as newly reformulated is clumsy at best, insensitive for certain, and may even be illegally hostile to religion. This one needs to change.”

(1) Department of Education original information sheet on the PSLF
(2) Department of Education release, January 31st, 2012

Rabbi I. Greene James is the Director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley. He is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the Vice-Chair of the Reconstructionist Educators of North America, a national association of Jewish Educators.