Religious Freedom’s Guardian

March 13, 2009  | 3 min read

Kim LaGree Ross helps faith-based organizations serve their country.
Kim LaGree Ross - Pepperdine Magazine

Many people only take notice of religious freedom when a headline appears in the news: when a cross is installed at a publicly financed location, or when the faith practices of soldiers, employees, or prisoners conflict with workplace or security restrictions.

What we don’t see are public policy pros like School of Public Policy alumna Kimberlee LaGree Ross (MPP ’01) who diligently work in the literary chambers and back offices of conscience. They navigate guidelines and provide regulatory assistance, allowing Americans of all persuasions to equally participate in the nation’s liberal democracy.

As the daughter of a L.A. County fireman and a mother active in nonprofit work, Ross grew up highly sensitized to the public and social services sector in which she has made her career. She further honed her expertise on the interactions of federal agencies and religious charities as a regulatory and contractual policy advisor at World Vision, a Christian international relief organization which receives grants from agencies such as USAID and the USDA.

In 2007 Ross was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Department of Labor as special assistant to the secretary, working on special projects for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which sought to improve participation of faith- and community-based organizations in providing needed federally-funded social services. “We advised and assisted in managing 100 grants to such organizations,” she recalls.

The results of her work and that of others like her are more efficient and compassionate delivery of services. “Faith-based organizations (FBOs) employ local people, they are located in the communities in which they serve, and they are more approachable than government agencies,” Ross explains. “Immigrants especially tend to seek services at religious institutions because they’re in the vicinity and have bilingual speakers.”

Such programs include provisions for substance abuse recovery, workforce reentry for prisoners, community health and family planning, and international relief aid, to name only a few. “FBOs tend to have their hand on the pulse of the needs in the region. The goal is to provide more culturally competent, accessible service options to make beneficiaries’ lives easier.”

Ross also acted as a liaison helping the government and these groups work together. “I was gratified,” she says, “to see officials enthusiastically work for changes that improve services by more effectively partnering with community and faith groups.” She saw her role of coordinating the public coffer and private charity as that of an educator but remarks, “I did see incomprehension by the public and officials about why working with FBOs was good public policy and good constitutional practice. I have also seen FBOs who lost who they were,” noting institutions that secularized under the regulations that came with federal participation.

Today Ross continues her work as a specialist ensuring FBO access to participation in the serving the American public. She is currently at work forming a new nonprofit, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. There she assesses and consults with her FBO clients not just on whether and how to be successful federal grant recipients, but also how to navigate the issues of religious freedom that they may confront in employment, public accommodation, and licensing.

Her clients continually present their “free exercise” challenges. “Consider that Catholic health professionals and facilities are worried that they will be required to offer and participate in abortion practices,” she explains, “if the current administration rescinds or amends regulations protecting freedom of conscience.” Some FBOs are likewise concerned about employment law legislation regarding marriage.

“It’s an irony and a shame that in this nation of religious freedom, so many officials interpret the First Amendment in a way that squelches rather than protects religious freedom,” Ross says.

Reflecting on her work in the Bush administration, she adds: “The Faith-Based Initiative found a way to honor both the people of faith and those of secular views—we worked out rules that were fair to those providing and seeking help. So one big question remains: Will our new president maintain a strong focus on equal opportunity for faith-based groups?” If permitted, their voice will continue to shape the future of religious freedom in America.