A question has been thrust to the forefront of the religious community: Are clergy and other professionals within religious nonprofits 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 program. It was designed to forgive the student loan debt of longtime public service or nonprofit employees — after they made 10 years of payments.
The original law included clear language on qualifying employment: basically, anyone who worked for the government or a nonprofit that had been designated as tax-exempt by the IRS. The law also noted that “the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes”
But that was then, and this is now.
Last month, the Department of Education introduced new language restricting participation in the program. It says that, in general, a person’s type or nature of employment (with a government organization or a nonprofit) does not matter for PSLF purposes.
But then comes this zinger: “If you work for a nonprofit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”
I am deeply troubled by the exclusion of clergy and other employees of religious organizations from this program. After all, the PSLF program was designed to encourage public service — and Congress never included this religious exclusion in any part of the original legislation.
Clergy and other people of faith serve the entire public good. For example, I work for the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, where a full half of our membership is not Jewish. Our programs reach out to the entire South Bay.
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.
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.
Additionally, the Department of Education did not exclude clergy or religious service employees in their regulations, issued in October 2008.
So after telling the public that almost all nonprofit 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 last month 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 instructs the IRS to recognize synagogues and other houses of worship as nonprofits — 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.
We ask a lot of our clergy. I was in a five-year seminary program, from which I graduated in 2008 — and many of my colleagues spent six years earning their rabbinical degrees.
During my time at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — five years studying at the campus in Wyncote, Pa., and parts of several summers in Israel — I worked, but I also took out student loans to help cover my family’s living expenses while I was a student.
Many rabbis graduate from rabbinical school with well more than $100,000 in student loan debt. To pay down that debt in its entirety would cost around $200,000. That kind of burden, placed upon our community leaders after the fact, is simply unacceptable.
I think this issue was well summed up by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield in his “For God’s Sake” blog in the Washington Post. In his Feb. 9 posting, he wrote that “[w]hile 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.”
I could not agree more.
Rabbi James Greene is the director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Addison-Penzak JCC of Silicon Valley. He is the vice chair of the Reconstructionist Educators of North America.