Unanswered questions abound as faith-based plan advances
By JOE FEUERHERD
The idea of faith-based programs to aid the poor appears to enjoy wide support. But when it comes to funding church-related social service efforts, or identifying which efforts are worthy of federal support, the devil is in the details.
The Senate is moving forward on one aspect of the Bush faith-based program -- legislation that would allow non-itemizing taxpayers to take deductions for their charitable contributions and provide $1.3 billion in additional funding for state antipoverty programs. At the same time, however, many questions remain about implementing direct federal aid to religious-based social service providers:
Should congregations be eligible to receive federal funds directly, or should they be required to establish affiliated nonprofit entities to administer their charitable work?
Do recipients of church-sponsored assistance have a genuine choice if they would prefer to seek aid in a secular setting? (Bushs proposed budget includes $600 million over three years in vouchers that addicts could use to seek help at treatment centers, including those that are church-sponsored.)
Must faith-based organizations receiving federal funds obey employment antidiscrimination laws, or should the exemption they have enjoyed for nearly 40 years continue?
Will government auditors and grant managers be aggressive in monitoring federally funded church-based programs, unduly entangling the religious mission of the organization with government regulation and red tape?
Beyond the questions, there is the politics. The Bush administration wants religious charities to have the same opportunity to administer social service programs as their secular counterparts, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Jim Towey told more than 300 researchers, religious representatives, officials of nonprofits, foundation representatives and government officials at a March 7 forum on The Role of Faith-Based Organization in the Social Welfare System.
Said Towey: The question shouldnt be, Does your organization believe in God? The question should be, Does your program work?
Critics, meanwhile, see the effort as a constitutionally dubious attempt to solidify support among the religious right through government funding, even as they are wary of administration outreach to inner-city congregations who typically vote for Democrats. Those churches say they are closest to the social problems everyone wants to fix -- homelessness, crime, illiteracy -- but that they have been shut out of government funding because they lack the track record of such preferred providers as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services.
Describing himself as a lifelong Democrat and no fan of the current administration, South Bronx Pentecostal minister Raymond Rivera offered this critique: The social service structure in this country has been basically white [and] mainline-dominated. Most of the money has gone to Catholic Charities, Lutheran Community Services, the Salvation Army, the Episcopal Mission Society, and I praise the Lord for that [because] theyve done a good job, but it shouldnt stay that way.
Rivera, founder and president of the Latino Pastoral Action Center in the Bronx, said, There is room for indigenous organizations that are closer to the community. The social service system is in need of renewal, and we can be part of that renewal.
Direct funding of congregations involves risks to the church and the government, said Thomas Jeavons, general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. We have a real possibility of money going directly to a congregation in large amounts and then at some point some appropriately zealous federal official will decide to audit the books. As a church person I can tell you what the books are going to look like -- there is not going to be any dishonesty, probably, but theyre not going to be done according to FASB [Federal Accounting Standards Board] rules and its going to look like a scandal. Once money flows into a congregation directly, then accountability without an entanglement of church and state becomes impossible, said Jeavons.
The answer to the dilemma of direct congregational funding, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is simple enough: Require congregations to establish nonprofit affiliates. We can have a divisive, angry battle over direct government funding of churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions, or working together [we can] set up a sensible way, in a pattern we are familiar with that we know can work, to really make a difference in increasing the number of churches and synagogues working in cooperation with each other to provide vastly needed social services.
While the administration encourages churches to establish nonprofits to deliver services, it does not want to require it, said Towey. A better approach, he said, is to require faith-based social service providers to abide by the same regulations and oversight as their secular counterparts. Wed like to see transparency and no impermissible uses of money, said Towey.
Yet another concern was expressed by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and convener of Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches working to overcome poverty.
I support equal access for faith-based communities, said Wallis. But the faith-based initiative must not be reduced to equal access to the crumbs falling from the table in a resource scheme where the poor are being pushed off [the national agenda].
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003