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Discounting Charity: Google and Religious Nonprofits

For years, Google has made its office software and Gmail programs available to individuals for free and to qualifying nonprofits — including religious organizations — at a discount.

Now, however, Christianity Today reports those days are over for some. Google has grouped several of its tools into a “Google for Nonprofits” program — and “schools, political think tanks, so-called proselytizing groups, churches, and organizations that take religion or sexual orientation into account in hiring,” are excluded from free or discounted access.

Christianity Today says that one reason for this “some-nonprofits-are-more-equal-than-others” treatment of churches is due to a fear of offending potential customers.

Haven’t we seen this kind of corporate cowardice before? You’ll no doubt recall how last year Apple dropped the Manhattan Declaration’s iPhone app because some gay-rights activists wrongly complained that the Declaration’s support of traditional marriage was anti-gay.

And earlier this summer, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, withdrew as the keynote speaker from the Willow Creek Leadership Summit because of threats from, yes, you guessed it, more gay-rights activists.

Presumably, Google made its office tools available to nonprofits at a discount because nonprofits provide beneficial services to society — and visibly supporting charity is good public relations and good business. But is Google now saying that those societal benefits count for less than the easily offended sensibilities of a small minority of its potential customers?

Remember, churches and religious organizations provide an incredible amount of needed services to their communities — and flourishing communities make for better business environments. The University of Pennsylvania’s Ram Cnaan estimates that the average urban congregation provides over $476,000 worth of social services to its community every year. This includes nearly $95,000 of volunteer hours worked; $79,000 dollars in economic benefits for drugs and alcohol treatment; $22,500 worth of divorce prevention, plus other economic stimulus for crime prevention, and so on. Ironically as well much of it goes to helping people with AIDS.

And in almost every case, such church aid is not contingent on the recipient’s beliefs.

When you multiply that kind of help by the 300,000 or so churches that exist in the United States — some urban, others suburban and rural — you can see that churches are major social service providers. And many of those churches operate on a shoestring budget: The discounts they once received from Google and still receive from other companies make a difference.

Yes, churches, if they are about the business of the Gospel, will attempt to win their friends and neighbors to faith in Christ. And, yes, they will defend their beliefs in the public square. But they aren’t asking for special treatment from Google or anyone else — just equal treatment.

Christianity Today reports that Google is continuing to “evaluate” its new program. Let’s hope that Google takes a good, serious look at the great benefits of religious organizations to their communities and also recognizes the difference between tolerance and repression.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: September 13, 2011.

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