The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Five Years On, ‘Faith-based Initiativeâ€TM Still Ambiguous

by Michelle Chen

Critics of President Bush’s growing project to fund religious groups that provide charity or other social services worry about the trend toward covertly enabling evangelical practices with taxpayer money.

Oct. 20, 2005 – Every day, without much controversy, government money goes toward keeping troubled teens in school, providing baby formula for poor single mothers, and treating drug addicts. But what if the same taxpayer dollars went to helping teens memorize bible scriptures? Or providing single mothers with church-sponsored marriage education? Or helping addicts find God on the way to getting clean?

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These are questions that the Bush administration’s "Faith-based Initiative" has inspired -- among religious groups, in the nonprofit sector, and occasionally, in federal courtrooms. The White House has touted government sponsorship of religious organizations as a way to strengthen the social service sector, but critics say the Faith-based Initiative has built an unholy alliance between religious and political interests.

Recent lawsuits involving faith-based nonprofit groups, which range from major charities like the Salvation Army to community-based service providers with an evangelical tilt, have illuminated some of the constitutional snares in the administration’s funding schemes. But on the issue of whether the government itself is responsible for an erosion of the wall between church and state, the courts have been agnostic.

Funding Faith

Over the past five years, the Bush administration has opened up unprecedented opportunities for so-called "faith-based organizations" to dip into federal funding pools. Since launching the Faith-Based and Community Initiative in 2001, federal agencies, including the Departments of Labor and Education, have funneled funds into various religiously affiliated programs, including spiritually infused healthcare services and job training mixed with bible study.

Bush’s initiative aims to provide financial support to faith-based organizations “without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression or religious character.”

Bush’s initiative aims to provide financial support to faith-based organizations "without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression or religious character."

But earlier this year, a federal district court ruled that the religious character of Mentorkids USA, a Christian mentoring program for at-risk youth, was incompatible with government support. The judge decided that the program was unlawfully using its grant to "advance religion." The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) subsequently cut off its $225,000 grant to the group, intended for about 50 mentorships to children of incarcerated parents.

Yet the watchdog organization that brought the suit, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), could not claim full victory, since it its real target was not just Mentorkids but what they see as the Bush administration’s pro-religion agenda. While the court opinion stated that the grant money had been used illegally, it stopped short of questioning the legality of the administration’s posture toward religious groups.

Robert Tuttle, an expert on religion and social policy with Georgetown University Law School, said HHS’s swift compliance with the court’s ruling essentially extinguished further debate. "At least as far as the government is concerned," he said. "It’s not a constitutional question. It’s simply a question of misuse of the grant funds."

While some suspect the administration is working to advance religion covertly, Mentorkids emphatically displays its spiritual foundation.

FFRF Co-President Anne Gaylor views Mentorkids as a telling example of a "very unwholesome mix of church and politics," which, from her group’s standpoint, is deceptively promoting religion under the rubric of public service.

But while some suspect the administration is working to advance religion covertly, Mentorkids emphatically displays its spiritual foundation. Its articles of incorporation state that the group strives "[t]o propagate the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ… by way of operating and maintaining missions, parsonages and Christian educational institutions."

Though the organization says that it does not force religion on anyone, according to court documents, mentors report regularly on whether the client has "discussed God," "attended Church," or "accepted Christ this month."

The court cited not only the pervasive religious influence in Mentorkids’ program content, but the religious basis for the group’s hiring practices. In order to participate in the program, mentors must sign a "statement of faith," which includes the phrase, "We believe in one holy, universal and apostolic Church."

According to Mentorkids Director Daryl Reese, the organization is intrinsically religious, but their spirituality should not automatically render them ineligible for public funding. While the group encourages mentors "to express that faith" toward their clients, Reese said, the grant money was spent only on secular operating activities, like non-religious training on mentoring practices.

To advocates for a secular government, while private groups are free to spread the love of Christ, the government should not be paying them to do so.

Reese believes that Mentorkids is the victim of "discrimination against the faith-based community in our country." The judge’s opinion, he said, was a product of "speculation… based upon who we are and what we believe."

Echoing the strongest proponents of faith-based funding, Reese challenged the entire notion of separating religion from politics, arguing that religiously inspired social services help people in ways that secular services cannot. In his view, offering "that level of spiritual connection with a kid that says, ‘there’s a God who loves you, and cares about you, and wants to have a relationship with you,’ is reparative, in many cases."

According to a 2004 study from the centrist policy think tank Rockefeller Institute of Government, research on the effectiveness of faith-based versus secular social service programs has not proven that religion makes a positive or a negative difference.

But Rose Constance, who has three children participating in Mentorkids’ services, believes that her family’s experience shows that the nonprofit sector would benefit from more, not less, religious influence.

The Constance children told The NewStandard that their mentors have engaged them in both secular and religious recreational activities, such as horseback riding, attending church together, and expense-paid trips to an evangelical camp.

CJ Constance, 14, often initiates conversations about religion with his mentor. "I have a lot of questions," he said. "Like, most of the time I’m confused, and he’ll explain it."

Rose, who renewed her faith while serving a short jail sentence years ago, said that even non-religious Mentorkids activities have a "moral base" that she felt was missing from secular mentoring programs that her children participated in previously.

Programs like Mentorkids, she said, "give the love that Jesus Christ gives to the kids. Whether … the kids want to follow it up -- that’s up to the kids."

White House of Worship

To advocates for a secular government, while private groups are free to spread the love of Christ, the government should not be paying them to do so.

In the administration’s guidelines for federal agencies administering faith-based grants, the main restriction is a prohibition on funding activities that are "inherently religious" – a term that critics say will inevitably generate misinterpretation and confusion.

Richard Katskee, assistant legal director with the advocacy organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that the administration’s approval of funding for a pervasively religious group like Mentorkids suggests that the funding restrictions are vague by design, "with everybody knowing, and it being entirely clear, that the money is going to end up being put [toward] improper purposes."

According to a White House survey of government social service programs, faith-based organizations received over $2 billion in direct federal grants in fiscal year 2004, or about 10 percent of total grant funding. From 2002 to 2004, the number of HHS grants made to faith-based groups jumped by nearly 90 percent. The White House has also earmarked special funds for the development of smaller faith-based and community groups; much of this is distributed through "intermediary" organizations like church networks.

Gaylor called this influx of federal money "religious pork," which the administration uses to bait the political loyalty of religious communities, with little regard for whether the grants are used effectively. She noted that although many of the beneficiaries are relatively unestablished and lack a developed nonprofit infrastructure, "Now, they’re just being taken by the hand and told, ‘We’ll give you money. You don’t have to do anything differently.’"

A recent study on faith-based funding by the liberal policy think tank Urban Institute suggested that small, community-based religious organizations supported by the White House often operate with little oversight or guidance, and among the surveyed groups, the degree of religious influence varied considerably. While some made a concerted effort to separate social work and spiritual activities – for example, by establishing a separate, non-religious drug treatment program alongside a religious one – other service providers tried to proselytize to clients.

Fredrica Kramer, the lead researcher of the study, said that in some cases, clients might not be adequately informed that they have a right to refuse services from a faith-based provider and to seek a secular alternative.

When serving vulnerable populations, said Kramer, "The question is, how able is a client… to say, ‘Thank you very much, but no thanks’?"

Religion-infused job training for inmates might offer an extreme example of a captive audience under the Faith-based Initiative. The Firm Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based service provider that lumps Christian fundamentalist teachings and prayer sessions with prisoner vocational training, is the subject of a pending lawsuit that aims at the questions previous court rulings have left open.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken on the case in hopes of persuading the court to hold the government itself accountable for unlawful use of federal funds to promote religious activities.

The plaintiff’s complaint highlights the Firm Foundation’s religiously biased hiring process, which, like Mentorkids’ selection procedure, is contingent on a statement of faith. In previous lawsuits, the courts have ruled that such practices do not necessarily preclude government funding. For instance, in a recent suit brought against the Salvation Army, the court held that the government’s sponsorship of the group – and by extension its religious hiring preferences – was not tantamount to the state’s endorsement of a particular religion.

But Katskee questioned why religion would factor into supposedly secular social work. Feeding the hungry, for example, does not require particular religious beliefs, but "if your goal is to use your soup kitchen as a means to get access to people to proselytize… then it matters very much who you employ."

The Firm Foundation lawsuit, Katskee said, turns on the question of whether "the government [is] engaging in or funding the discrimination." A ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be an unprecedented indictment of the Faith-based Initiative.

Critics of the White House Initiative say that the administration’s fervent support for religious groups not only risks violating longstanding legal doctrines, but dilutes the federal government’s responsibilities in addressing social ills.

"You have these complex problems that involve poverty, and crime, and racism, and sexism, and health problems, and so on," said Gaylor. "And you can’t just wave a magic wand and make them go away. But this is the promise, this is the lure of the faith-based funding."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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