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For states, faith-based funding no big deal


Acceptance of taxpayer-funded services administered by church-sponsored groups runs high at the state level, even as Washington policy makers debate the finer constitutional questions of just how government should interact with “faith-based organizations.”

In conservative Florida, for example, “everybody seems comfortable with this,” says Robert Crew, a Florida State University political science professor. “Nobody has sued anybody over anything,” said Crew.

In more liberal New Jersey the story is similar: “There’s an acceptance -- and not a grudging one -- of faith-based organizations providing social services” with government funding, said Richard Roper, a consultant with the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

Crew and Roper are among the dozens of state-based researchers working with the Roundtable to determine what access church-based groups have to state grants, and what, if any, obstacles they face in pursuing their mission. Among preliminary findings discussed at an Oct. 23 conference:

  • Church-state concerns are a non-issue in Maryland, where the primary providers of government-supported day care centers for the poor are religious organizations. Likewise, in Nebraska, 6 to 7 percent of the state’s 940 social service contracts go to “readily identifiable” faith-based groups. The reaction of state officials presented with church-state concerns? They say, “I’m not sure why we want to be concerned with all that -- it’s not on our radar screen,” according to Roundtable researcher Dale Krane, a University of Nebraska political scientist.
  • Employment discrimination by faith-based social service providers -- Catholics hiring only Catholics, for example, to distribute food at a soup kitchen -- has yet to surface as a significant issue in the states. By contrast, groups opposing President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative want to eliminate exemptions that allow taxpayer-supported church-affiliated organizations to favor their co-religionists in hiring. One potentially ironic result of the congressional debate, said Krane, is that church groups may face additional scrutiny of their hiring practices at the state level because the issue has become high profile in Washington.
  • Some faith-based organizations are concerned that government funding will jeopardize the character of their organizations. “There’s a high level of anxiety” among smaller faith-based groups that government funds will result in a loss of control “as to how they provide services,” said Roper.
  • Large faith-based social service providers with a substantial track record of service -- such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services -- are skilled at working with government funders. Smaller congregation-based providers, by contrast, are just beginning to work directly with government to deal with problems on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. To their benefit, said Feather Houstoun, Pennsylvania secretary of public welfare, these churches, synagogues and mosques have “deep roots in the community,” though they frequently are “not equipped to compete” against non-profit groups with more experience providing social services.

Tricky issues do arise. For example, can a taxpayer-supported church-run drug rehabilitation program offer a prayer service for recovering addicts? Such programs must be voluntary and offered in a different location and at a separate time from the government-sponsored assistance, said Brent Orrell, director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s recently established Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

And there’s apparently a tacit acceptance of employment discrimination among government funders and faith-based organizations -- a don’t-ask-don’t-tell-policy for the armies of compassion. Commented one advocate for Catholic social service programs: “How many non-Catholic directors of Catholic Charities programs do you see?” That’s an area best left unexplored, said the advocate.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002