Who'll Keep the Faith-Based Initiative?

After signing the Second Chance Act in April, President Bush greeted Thomas Boyd of Baltimore, a graduate of the Jericho Program, a drug rehabilitation initiative.
After signing the Second Chance Act in April, President Bush greeted Thomas Boyd of Baltimore, a graduate of the Jericho Program, a drug rehabilitation initiative. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
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By Jim Towey
Saturday, June 28, 2008

As President Bush noted Thursday at the national conference of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, his first executive order was to establish that office. The controversy over his initiative began then and continues. Liberals who measure compassion only by tax dollars spent say it hasn't gone far enough, while zealots about church-state separation say that it goes too far and should be shut down. But this program is transforming lives. And in an election campaign lacking for new ideas, this one is worth saving.

Thomas Boyd, a graduate of the faith-based Jericho Program in Baltimore, which helps former prisoners rebuild their lives, is an example of the transformative power of such initiatives. There are thousands like him across our country. They are the shining lights of an initiative that I saw work wonders during my four years as White House director of faith-based initiatives. The White House program has brought new programs, more charitable giving and improved relationships between the federal government and religious charities, all within the bounds of the Constitution.

Although this continues to be debated in Washington, there's little debate in the heartland: The Bush faith-based initiative works. Thirty-five governors -- 19 Democrats and 16 Republicans -- and more than 70 mayors have similar programs.

Although this initiative has accomplished so much for so many, its future is uncertain. The program's true legacy will not be known until the next president decides what to do with it. Unfortunately, on this issue, both candidates have been silent.

Since no one has asked the candidates these important questions, I will:

· Will you keep open the 11 faith-based offices that President Bush established in government, including the one in the White House?

These offices play critical roles in helping religious charities fight discrimination. In Sioux Falls, S.D., they helped a Catholic soup kitchen that risked losing federal funding because organizers led a voluntary prayer. Paul Revere's Old North Church couldn't receive a "Save America's Treasures" grant until President Bush's change in policy. The Seattle Hebrew Academy received disaster relief money to recover from an earthquake after the White House pushed a policy change to ensure that the school was treated the same as any other school. Without these offices, none of this would have happened.

· Will you rescind President Bush's executive order mandating equal treatment of faith-based organizations by the federal government?

Previously, religious charities faced discrimination if they had, say, a cross on a wall, an all-Jewish board of directors or a Bible verse on a brochure. When Congress blocked legislation to end such discrimination, federal faith-based offices shepherded 13 regulations through seven agencies that helped faith-based charities compete on a level playing field. What will you do with these regulations and the executive order?

· Will you expand the Bush pilot project allowing addicts to choose their own treatment program?

Before George W. Bush's presidency, addicts nationwide were forced to use the same treatment providers even if they had repeatedly failed with them. In states where the new Access to Recovery program is operational, addicts can choose a faith-based approach to recovery. Will you support more programs that allow choice?

· Do you support the right of faith-based charities to hire on a religious basis without forfeiting federal funds?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a later Supreme Court case permit religious groups to hire on the basis of faith. An Orthodox Jewish organization, after all, could not maintain its identity if it were forced to hire Southern Baptists or atheists. If these same groups want federal funding to support their good works, however, they face a maze of contradictory rules. In the case of some poverty-fighting programs, Congress prohibits religious hiring; yet with others, such hiring is expressly permitted. This has led to a logjam of social welfare legislation in need of reauthorization. How will you break this impasse?

· Will you promote competitiveness so that the best provider of social services -- be it sacred or secular -- prevails?

Those who advocate on behalf of huge government anti-poverty programs often focus on increasing the levels of spending instead of achieving results. Powerful lobbies and resistant congressional committees have thwarted attempts to focus on outcomes. Take Head Start, the government's multibillion-dollar early-childhood initiative. President Bush tried to build accountability and to tie funding to outcomes rather than follow the well-traveled path of perpetual funding. He lost, and so did many qualified faith-based programs that remain spectators because of the stranglehold that current grantees have on funding; 95 cents of every Head Start dollar goes to secular providers. Does this seem fair to you? If not, what will you do about it?

Talking about God on the campaign trail might appear faith-friendly, but it is no substitute for articulating a sound policy position on this critical initiative. As our economy frays, this strong new thread in our social safety net must be preserved. The next president needs to get specific.

The writer was director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006. He is president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

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