WASHINGTON (CNS) — Nearly seven years in the making, the federal government has issued rules intended to allow faith-based organizations as well as neighborhood groups to apply for federal grants and awards on an equal footing with other nonprofits.

A 304-page set of rules was issued in late March outlining the details for how nine Cabinet-level agencies — the ones most likely to issue grant money — are to treat funding requests from faith-based and other groups.

Those who have seen the rules say they maintain protections against bias not only toward the faith-based groups, but also toward the recipients of the services rendered by those groups with the federal funds won, so that recipients do not feel coerced into religious activity as a condition for their receiving services.

“Now that I understand what this process is, I can’t say I’m surprised it took that long,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

“You know, in the federal bureaucracy, some things turn very, very slowly,” Nathan Diament said with a laugh. He is public policy director for the Orthodox Union, which represents the legislative interests of the nation’s Orthodox Jews. “It’s a very difficult thing when you’re trying to get nine Cabinet agencies to all do the same thing.”

Diament was on the White House advisory council consisting of different faith-based groups that met in 2009 to find common ground on how the government could proceed in working with faith-related nonprofits. Another member of the council was Anthony Picarello, general counsel and associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The chair of that council was Melissa Rogers, who later became executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“The president was attempting to bring together people who had differences on these things. So I really think there is widespread agreement on these rules and makes them more durable,” said Rogers, adding her belief that they will survive a change in administration next year regardless of who may be elected president.

“One of the things that this new rule does is it reminds agencies that all rules on federal financial assistance have to be based on merit,” Rogers told CNS. “Deciding whether to award a grant should not be based on a group’s religious affiliation or lack thereof, but what they can do. Serving people in need — that should be the focal point,” she said. “Religious groups, they feel they provide services very effectively. They believe they should have an equal shot at getting an award.”

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2010 instructing that the rule-making process begin. The Cabinet agencies involved are departments of Education, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services, and the Agency for International Development.

Last August, the nine agencies published proposed rules seeking comment.

The rules, once they take effect, will clarify what activities can and cannot be supported with direct federal financial assistance. The term “inherently religious activities” will be replaced with the term “explicitly religious activities” and the rules will provide examples of such activities. They also will bar organizations that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against beneficiaries, including denying services or benefits, based on religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.

The nine agencies must ensure all decisions on federal financial assistance for faith-based groups to deliver services are based solely on merit and make it clear the faith-based organizations are eligible to participate in a federal agency’s social service programs on the same basis as any other private organization.

The agencies also will conduct workshops to brief faith-based groups on the rules.

While large-scale religious organizations have long applied for and received federal grants to provide services — the work with refugees by the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services, for example — the George W. Bush administration sought to expand the awarding of grants to smaller faith-based entities. Concerns were raised, though, that some of the awardees required recipients of services to take part in religious activities.

“Bush started the faith-based initiative in his administration, and obviously Bush was a Republican, and President Obama kept a lot of it in place,” Diament said. “It really puts the notion of religious organizations being able to partner with the federal government on, hopefully, a much more stable and enduring footing since it’s now been embraced by a Republican president and a Democratic president.”