Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced the creation of an Office of Community Initiatives yesterday, reconciling a 2002 campaign promise to champion "faith-based initiatives" with the political realities he faces in Annapolis.
Democratic leaders resisted the efforts during the past two legislative sessions, twice placing language in the budget that prevented Ehrlich from steering state dollars to religious organizations that operate social programs without the General Assembly's blessing.
The governor's action yesterday was accomplished through an executive order, and the word "faith" did not cross his lips during a morning news conference.
Ehrlich's aides stressed that community groups of all stripes -- secular and nonsecular -- would benefit from the new office, which will have a small staff and make no grants of its own. The office will play a coordinating role, Ehrlich said, helping to connect community groups with existing resources in the government and the private sector.
Still, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) warned that lawmakers will closely monitor the office's activities to ensure that it does not run afoul of the legislative dictate or a constitutional separation of church and state. Although it is appropriate in some cases for the state to grant money to religious groups, he said, "we cannot be involved in seeking to enhance one religion to the detriment of another."
"What [Ehrlich] is trying to do is hold onto the Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party," Miller added, referring to the Christian televangelist and the conservative radio talk show host. "He's got to throw them a bone every once in a while."
Told of Miller's comments, Ehrlich said the office is "a bone to the commitment we made in the 2002 election."
During that campaign, Ehrlich and his running mate, Michael S. Steele, touted plans to steer more government funding to religious groups, mirroring a national initiative promoted by President Bush.
Ehrlich said yesterday that the office has been set up in a way that complies with the law and addresses "the rationale opposition" that was voiced during previous efforts to help faith-based organizations better serve residents.
"Some of the opposition we heard was way off base," Ehrlich said, characterizing it as coming from the "ACLU wing of the Democratic Party," a reference to the American Civil Liberties Union. "I do not usually include [Miller] in that."
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the scope of the new office appears "modest, to say the least."
Currie said his initial impression, based on conversations with staff, is that the office complies with the legislative dictate.
During his news conference, Ehrlich said that part of the rationale for the new office is the state's poor budget outlook. Chronic shortfalls could prompt cuts to social programs in coming years.
"During tight budgetary times, community organizations become increasingly relevant," Ehrlich said. "Government should make their job easier, not more difficult."
His audience included invited representatives of nonprofit groups -- some with religious affiliations -- that aim to advance literacy, clean up drug-plagued neighborhoods, mentor youths and revitalize communities.
Ehrlich named Betsy Nessen Merrill to head the office. She has served as assistant development director for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University since 2002. Ehrlich said Steele would oversee the office's operations.