President Bush has succeeded in opening the checkbooks of five federal departments to religious organizations. Now he's setting his sights on money doled out by the states.
The goal is to persuade states to funnel more of the federal money for social service programs that they administer to "faith-based organizations."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposes initiative.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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Federal regulations now allow federal agencies to directly fund churches and other religious groups. Bush acted alone to rewrite these rules after failing to persuade Congress to change the law.
Partly as a result, in 2003, groups dubbed "faith-based" received $1.17 billion in grants from federal agencies, according to documents provided by the White House to the Associated Press. That was about 8 percent of the $14.5 billion spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments.
That's not enough, said H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. An additional $40 billion in federal money is given out by state governments, he said, and many states do not realize that federal rules now allow them to fund these organizations.
"We're on the sunrise side of the mountain," he said.
To encourage states, the White House has hosted a series of conferences, Towey has met with state leaders and Bush has personally lobbied governors.
Towey's office will also be looking for cases in which the administration believes state or local governments are not treating religious groups fairly. He cited a case last fall in which the city council in Janesville, Wis., was urged by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that opposes Bush's initiative, not to give the Salvation Army $250,000 to buy a building for a homeless shelter because worship activities would also take place inside. Towey's office told city officials that federal regulations allowed the grant to go forward.
"When it's brought to our attention that a group's being discriminated against, the federal government's going to weigh in," he said.
In the coming year, a $100 million drug treatment program that allows addicts to use their government money to seek treatment from religious groups will also get started.
States have been slow to warm to the Bush initiative. An independent 2003 study of state efforts to contract with such religious groups found little activity. That was partly because states did not see a need to target religious groups and partly because their budgets were so tight that there was little room for new contractors, said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York in Albany.
"For the most part, the response . . . has been muted," the 2003 study concluded.
But within the past six months, Nathan said, the states have shown more interest, with more governors appointing liaisons to the religious community and announcing policies that make it clear the state will consider their applications for funding.
By Towey's count, 21 governors, including many Democrats, have set up their own faith-based offices.
Meanwhile, opponents, who contend that the White House is walking over the line separating church and state, are looking for a court case to challenge the entire initiative on constitutional grounds. And they vow to keep their eye on the states.
"There clearly is a wave of new faith-based offices coming to states around the country, and I think some of them are likely to deal with it responsibly and others to deal with it as irresponsibly as the administration does," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Also advancing Bush's initiative: a drug treatment program that is just getting under way. Called Access to Recovery, it gives drug users vouchers to take to any organization they choose -- including those that rely on a religious conversion to break the addiction. Because the program uses vouchers, it can legally fund explicitly religious activity.
"Many people have overcome addiction through faith transformation," Towey said. Counselors in these programs won't have to meet the same medical standards that drug treatment counselors typically must, he said. "There's going to be standards in place, but also, in addition to science, some faith."
That's what worries people such as Lynn.
"Some of them are not qualified to do this work," he said, "particularly in areas where medical expertise is needed but is no longer apparently necessary."