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Church Groups Lose Faith in Bush Promises for Funding

Photo Credit: Lauren Burke, WDCPix

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, stepped to a Washington podium last week and quickly had the rapt attention of the 100 or so do-gooders gathered to celebrate the virtues of mentoring. But they couldn’t hear him well. The microphone was not working.

Smiling broadly, Hein fussed a bit, then decided to get started anyway. A few minutes into his talk about Bush administration efforts to “grow the supply of compassion,” a suited tech guy appeared, plugged a chord into a socket, and Hein was amplified.

The episode provided divine inspiration for Wilson Goode, a Baptist minister and two-term mayor of Philadelphia, who rose next to speak about Amachi, a faith-based mentoring program for children whose parents are in prison. “We have to be plugged in to the right source," Goode said. "Whenever we’re plugged into the wrong source, that’s when you have difficulty. That’s my sermon for Sunday.”

Seven years after President George W. Bush launched his office of faith-based initiatives, critics insist that by turning to Washington for funding, many religious groups have themselves plugged in to the wrong source.

“It’s religious window dressing for the government,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has gone to federal court to fight the program, told me in a telephone interview late last week. “It blurred the line between church and state and made people think it’s OK to use tax dollars to promote religion.”

Unfortunately for Bush, the program also has critics at the other end of the Establishment Clause spectrum. They complain that this president—who made faith-based programs a central part of his compassionate conservative campaign eight years ago –- hasn’t done enough to help religious groups that want to provide social services.

For some, tonight’s State of the Union address, which Bush has regularly used to promote the program, will serve as a sad reminder of their disappointment. In 2003, for example, he used the speech to propose spending $450 million to help supply mentors to more than one million disadvantaged junior high students and children of prisoners, and a new $600 million program to increase the availability of drug addiction treatment. The next year, he asked Congress to make a series of legal changes "so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again," and to provide still more millions for prisoner re-entry programs.

Since those presidential calls, federal money has been directed to many such programs. Hein last week highlighted Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, which in 2007 received a $1 million grant from the Dept. of Health and Human Services for its mentoring program, which uses the Amachi model. On Tuesday Bush is scheduled to go to Baltimore to visit the Jericho program, designed to help men leaving prison to rebuild their lives. The program, run by Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, is funded by the U.S. Labor Dept.’s Prison Re-Entry Initiative.

But the total funds directed to these programs have fallen far short of Bush’s goals and Congress refused to enact the contracting changes he requested. David Kuo, who spent nearly two years as deputy director of the office of faith-based initiatives, blames that performance on a weak commitment to the program at the highest levels of the White House.

Kuo left the office in 2003 and, in a stinging article on Beliefnet, where he is now Washington editor, and in his 2006 book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," he set out both his hopes for the program and its failings.

In a telephone conversation Friday, a still bitterly disappointed Kuo said the White House effort had been “pure politics”—hyped in Bush’s first term to gain support from religious conservatives and then rarely mentioned when the votes were no longer needed.

An $8 Billion Promise

In his first major policy address as a presidential candidate, Bush declared that it wasn’t enough to praise the efforts of faith-based and community groups and call for volunteers to help them. “Without more support and resources both public and private," he said in 1999, "we are asking them to make bricks without straw.”

Bush went on to promise about $8 billion for the effort—including $6.3 billion in tax credits to encourage charitable giving, a provision that didn’t make it into the final version of the 2001 tax cut legislation.

Kuo and others involved with the program said some religious leaders were left with the impression – perhaps the result of overzealous marketing from the White House – that the faith-based office would generate large new pools of money intended solely for their social service work. Instead, what the Bush administration set out to do was to make it easier for faith-based groups to compete with other social service providers for government funds.

Faith-based groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services have received federal funds for their work for decades. But the premise of Bush’s vision, as set out by Marvin Olasky – a Marxist-turned-evangelical – was that to be effective, the groups had to be more explicitly faith-based.

Bush was unable to get Congress to change laws to allow faith-based groups to hire and fire on the basis of their religion and still receive federal funds. Instead, he issued a series of executive orders and other regulations to make it easier for them to retain their religious identity and get federal money – while insisting that those funds would not be used for proselytizing.

The result is a confusing set of federal laws and regulations governing the use of public funds by faith-based groups, on central questions like religious hiring and whether secular alternatives must be available to clients. To further complicate things, some states have taken actions of their own in this realm, as I saw when I wrote recently about how Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney handled the issue when they were governors.

That’s why Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at the Center for Public Justice, a leading advocacy group for faith-based initiatives, could only muster a “probably yes” when I asked if, seven years on, it was now easier for faith-based groups to access federal funding. “The whole process is pretty complicated.”

Leveling the Playing Field

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives can claim some accomplishments. Faith-based groups now get an estimated 11 percent of federal grant money issued for social services. That figure is difficult to put in context, however, because the government only began collecting data on grants to faith-based groups in 2003, when it looked at contracts in just five federal agencies. By 2006, when it looked at 11 agencies, about $2.2 billion went to the groups.

The tally is a bit neater in the Compassion Capital Fund, launched in 2002 to provide technical assistance and capacity building for faith-based and community organizations that provide social services. Since its inception, the fund has sent $264 million to more than 4,500 groups. For example, in 2005, one-time awards of $50,000 were made to 310 groups to improve their ability to deal with at-risk youth, the homeless, people in rural communities, and to organizations that provide "marriage education."

Hein last week highlighted one area of success: a demonstration project that provides mentoring for recently released prisoners had cut the average recidivism rate in half in its first three years, he said.

As Goode saw it, “The one thing President Bush has done is he has leveled the playing field so that faith-based organizations and congregations now have a seat at the table and feel they have a right to be involved in this process.”

But for critics of the program, there is still plenty to complain about. A June 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office found wide differences and severe deficiencies in the way agencies monitored their grants to faith-based initiatives and uneven understanding of rules on permitted religious activities and the rights of program beneficiaries when they face religious content to which they object.

“The administration has shied away from special oversight of church-state safeguards,” said Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. “The administration has not been willing to recognize that in a number of situations, there are some special concerns here and we need to take those seriously.”

Rogers pointed to a rule that prohibits "inherently religious activities" from being part of any government-funded program. "Everyone agrees that that is the case," she said. "But the word ‘inherently’ has caused a lot of confusion. What is it? Drug rehab that relies on the gospel to get people off drugs? Is that an inherently religious activity?"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has filed several suits against the program. In a 2002 case, a Wisconsin judge ruled that a grant to Faith Works, a faith-based residential addiction program, was unconstitutional because it amounted to direct government support for a faith-intensive program.

But in June 2007, the Supreme Court decided that the group did not have standing to sue the White House office. Gaylor said the group continues to bring cases, and is now at work on a challenge to a North Dakota juvenile detention program that is run by a Lutheran group. Residents who do not want to participate in worship services are forced to return to their rooms, she said.

Gaylor said that case and others show the trouble that stems from the very nature of the program: the belief faith-based groups are well suited to provide social services precisely because they are grounded on religion, while operating within a constitutional framework that prohibits them from using federal funds to proselytize. “It was set up as a paradox and that’s always been the weakness of it.”

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