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Bush’s faith initiative draws reactions


President George W. Bush raised the expectations of some and drew cautious reactions from others in the religious community when he made good on a campaign promise to increase the role of faith-based institutions in public policy.

On Jan. 29, Bush laid the groundwork to allow religious organizations to receive government money in exchange for fighting poverty, addiction, homelessness and a range of social ills.

The announcement prompted wide debate over the dangers of church-state entanglement and fears that the U.S. government, under the Bush initiative, would end up paying religious groups that proselytize while serving those in need or that might discriminate in hiring because of religious beliefs.

After a White House meeting with nearly three dozen religious leaders, Bush announced his new “White House Office for Faith-based and Community Initiatives,” a clearinghouse of sorts for programs that deliver social services.

“We will encourage faith-based and community programs without changing their mission,” Bush said. “We will help all in their work to change hearts while keeping a commitment to pluralism.”

But before Bush could unveil his new program, civil liberties groups were promising to challenge the program in the courts as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. “The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who called the plan a “constitutional nightmare.”

Rarely mentioned in the days immediately following the announcement was the fact that groups affiliated with mainstream denominations use billions in federal money in the delivery of social services. Federal funds constitute about 60 percent of the money used by member agencies of Catholic Charities U.S.A. In 1998, the total in federal and state funds used by Catholic Charity agencies amounted to more than $1.3 billion. Catholic Relief Services, which provides aid overseas, had a budget of $367 million for fiscal year 2000. Of that, 59 percent was made up of either federal funds or donated commodities from the government.

The nation’s largest nonprofit, Lutheran Services in America, recently released a survey that shows it spends nearly $7 billion per year on services, according to Joanne Negstad, president and CEO. Of that amount, 39 percent comes from government funding.

For Sharon Daly, Catholic Charities U.S.A. vice president for social policy, the worry is not church-state entanglement -- she feels there are enough watchdogs demanding specific assurances that church-state separation will not be a problem -- but whether Bush’s new initiative will mean more money for the country’s poor population.

She is supportive of his proposal to allow those who do not itemize to take a tax deduction for charitable giving.

But she is wary that other provisions might actually diminish government’s role in providing aid. There is talk, she said, about using federal funds for some new tax credit at the state level “If this were to take existing money for the poor to give a tax cut to people who give donations, then it doesn’t seem there would be a net gain.” The most important question is “What does it do for the poor? Does it improve services? Does it give them more than they get now?”

In a statement released in reaction to the initiative, Lutheran Services’ Negstad said, “We’re heartened that President Bush says he wants faith-based organizations to have a place at the table, but we hope that the government will not vacate its essential seat at that table. President Bush has made a good start, but make no mistake: Without follow-up and funding that continues government’s partnership with organizations such as ours, too many people will continue to go without food or homes.”

Despite a robust economy in recent years, Negstad and Daly paint a picture of a society where poverty is still a deep and relentless problem. Negstad said a recent survey showed that 43 percent of member agencies had waiting lists for such items as affordable housing, mental health and counseling services, independent living facilities, assisted living facilities and long-term nursing care.

Bush tapped Princeton University professor John DiIulio, a Roman Catholic and intellectual dean of the faith-based movement, to head the new office and appointed former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a Jew, as a special adviser on faith-based initiatives. DiIulio has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and was director of the Manhattan Institute’s Jeremiah Project. (That program was founded in 1998 to identify, document, publicize and fund faith-based programs that help inner-city youth and young adults.)

The president also signed an executive order telling five Cabinet departments -- Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education -- to investigate ways to make it easier for faith-based groups to compete for government contracts.

Bush did not elaborate on how funds would be distributed or who would qualify for them, but his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said concerns about church-state separation would be addressed as the proposal works its way through Congress.

“The government shouldn’t walk away or leave people languishing on welfare because some people will raise questions about faith-based groups,” he said. “Faith-based groups can often be the answer that helps people get off the street and back into life.”

Fleischer said Bush would seek to fund only the “community service aspects” of faith-based organizations and not the “religious aspects.” He said it would be up to federal departments to decide which groups were “appropriate,” but left the door open for everyone from evangelicals to the Nation of Islam to apply.

The new office could channel as much as $24 billion over 10 years to the private sector to handle everything from prison and drug rehabilitation to homeless feeding programs, welfare-to-work programs and efforts to combat illiteracy.

“This is a creative and constitutionally sound approach that should be embraced, not shunned,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, the advocacy firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. “It is clear the president’s plan recognizes the power of faith in our lives [but] it does not endorse a particular faith or religion.”

Several groups that advocate a strict separation between church and state said the new programs could be dangerous for both government and religion.

“President Bush is trying to do right, but he’s going about it in the wrong way,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he is nervous about the right of religious groups -- as private, nonprofit organizations -- to discriminate in hiring and choosing whom they will help.

“Government money should never be used to discriminate,” Saperstein said. “The programs that will likely be at the core of this office’s work will often do so -- but now with the stamp of approval of the president of the United States.”

The Muslim community said the president’s plan codifies in an official way what Muslims already believe about helping the less fortunate.

Jewish groups, however, are generally wary of government involvement with religion and said offering secular programs along with religious ones is not a guarantee that government will not become entangled with private faith.

Sr. Mary Rose McGeady, a Daughter of Charity who is president of Covenant House, which offers shelter and support services for runaways and kids in crisis, was among the several dozen representatives of organizations that might participate in the program who attended a meeting of religious leaders with Bush.

McGeady told Catholic News Service, “The president came through as very sincere in believing that faith-based organizations do a very fine job of taking care of the poor. He actually talked from the viewpoint of ‘love thy neighbor.’ ”

White House meetings were planned for later in the week with representatives of specific faiths to discuss the program.

Fr. Val Peter, executive director of Girls and Boys Town who planned to attend the meeting with Catholic leaders, told CNS he would emphasize the need for accountability by participating programs.

“Every Slick Louie in the neighborhood will be trying to figure out how to get to the trough,” he said, relating the experience of the state of Illinois in opening up some programs for faith-based groups. Problems arose, for example, with “store-front churches,” he said.

They may have had the best of intentions, Peter said, but lacked structure and accountability and there was no way to tell where and how some money was spent.

McGeady noted that Covenant House raises 92 percent of its funding through “the generosity of the American people” but already receives some money from HUD.

What Bush is attempting to do, she explained, is include individual churches in some government funding if programs they run, for example, help addicts or single mothers or some other needy segment of the population.

Still to be worked out are details about how programs would qualify or be certified, McGeady said.

She said that she and the other representatives at the White House Jan. 29 met with Bush for about 20 minutes and talked about some of the legal barriers. She also expressed her hope that donations from individuals not drop off because now they feel the government money will cover everything her agency needs.

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001