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President Bush Remains Committed to Faith

March 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE: At first glance, it resembled a trade show. There was nothing for sale, but this Los Angeles event was a showcase, one of 18 conferences around the country sponsored by the White House to tout its faith-based initiative, which directs government funds to religious charities.

WOMAN: And we do a lot of outreach in the community.

JEFFREY KAYE: The administration is building a new relationship between church and state, one that President Bush has promised to expand, as he did today at a White House conference.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The goal is, over the next four years, to change the culture permanently, so faith- and community-based organizations will be welcomed into the grant-making process of government. That’s the goal.

JEFFREY KAYE: The president has traveled the country linking faith, recovery, and social services; and inviting religious groups to apply for more federal funds.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: So what I’m here to talk to you today is to how to make sure that you have a chance to access that money. You can access that money without losing your mission.

JEFFREY KAYE: The man in charge of the faith-based initiative is Jim Towey.

JIM TOWEY: It’s a revolution. There’s a change under way. It takes time to take root, but philosophically we have to end discrimination against faith-based groups. They’ve been treated like second-class citizens in the public square.

JEFFREY KAYE: That “revolution” is headquartered across the street from the White House at the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

JIM TOWEY: If you look at the radical secularists that view the First Amendment as barring involvement by faith-based groups in the public square, that mentality held sway, I think, for decades. And what is happening in America today is, I think there’s a backlash.

JEFFREY KAYE: Frustrated by congressional inaction on proposed faith-based legislation, the president issued executive fiats and new regulations that allow recipients of federal funds to keep their religious character.

To steer more federal funding to religious charities, the White House established faith-based offices in ten federal agencies.

WOMAN: We have a litany of information.

JEFFREY KAYE: The agencies are providing federal funds– the White House says it doesn’t keep track of exactly how much– to thousands of first-time recipients and small faith-based groups.

In June, a group headed by Pastor Jim Ortiz received $10 million from the U.S. Department of Labor. Ortiz is chairman of the Latino Coalition for Christian Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.

PASTOR JIM ORTIZ: We receive the funds from the federal government, and then we then sub-grant to grassroots organizations that apply to us on a competitive grant basis. And they present their programs and their proposals.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Latino Coalition dispenses funds to smaller religious charities, such as Hermano, in Whittier, California.

WOMAN: We keep the management, the case management, ongoing.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Latino Coalition provided $100,000 to Hermano for counseling and job training for young people.

JEFFREY KAYE: From skid row missions to counseling and job training, the growing federal support of religious social service groups has invited scrutiny and questions. In Albany, New York, the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a project of the nonpartisan Rockefeller Institute of Government, has issued several reports on the faith-based initiative.

The director of the institute, Richard Nathan, says the Bush administration has moved the government from a separation of church and state towards a policy of what he calls neutrality.

RICHARD NATHAN: There is an important conceptual shift in the way the government seeks to describe what is permissible under the First Amendment. You can’t have established religion, and you have to permit the free expression of religion. But if you don’t proselytize and you’re providing services, you can do it in a religious setting.

JEFFREY KAYE: In speeches to faith-based groups, the president spells out his rules.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You can’t use federal money to proselytize. We want to make sure the church and the states stay separate, but you can use federal money to help a person quit drinking. You can’t, if you’re a faith- based organization, say “only Methodists allowed.” You know, you can say all drunks are welcome.

JEFFREY KAYE: Dispensing federal funds to faith-based groups is nothing new. Groups such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA, a nonprofit arm of the Catholic Church, are longtime recipients of government assistance, as are many black churches.

A non-profit arm of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, LA’s oldest black congregation, has been building federally funding low-income housing since the Reagan administration.

SPOKESMAN: They’re now hosting our Internet site.

JEFFREY KAYE: These days, the First AME Church also gets funding to advise startup businesses, to dispense transit vouchers, and to provide job placement. Under the old rules, faith-based charities were required to separate their religious identities from their social services. Now, in a break with the past, the Bush administration is telling federally funded religious groups that’s it’s okay to be more open about faith.

JIM TOWEY: So what we’ve done is said, “No, you can leave the cross up. You can’t preach on government money. You can’t promote religious activity and worship on government money. But we aren’t going to require you to alter your identity. That could rob you of the very effectiveness of your program.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Towey says government funded charities can make a connection for program participants between faith and recovery.

JIM TOWEY: If on their private time, when they get out of the job training program, there’s a 12-step program across the hall that’s privately funded that might lead to a spiritual renovation in their life, that might get them off the drugs or alcohol, I think that’s great.

JEFFREY KAYE: Some recipients of federal assistance welcome what they see as an opportunity to point participants in their programs towards faith. The Sol Del Valle Community Center, north of Los Angeles, has received $63,000 in federal funds.

They’ve bought music and computer equipment for an after-school program, and hired an architect for a new building. Pastor Domingo Mota, who runs the center, says there are no religious strings attached to the social services, but he hopes a message does get through.

PASTOR DOMINGO MOTA: It might take two to three years before someone comes to Christ. They might receive services and never come to Christ. We still love them anyway.

JEFFREY KAYE: Do you feel that just by being here and having the program here, that is an opportunity to, in your words, bring people to Christ?

PASTOR DOMINGO MOTA: Absolutely. The most beautiful thing that I hear from people is that “when I walk in here, I feel like this is a community. When I walk in here, I sense love. What else can I ask for? What else can I ask for?”

They know the love of Christ is there. And although we are developing structures, the most important thing here is that we develop is the spirit of family and community. And through that, in God’s time, people will come to know him.

JEFFREY KAYE: Nathan says he is wary, ambivalent about what he sees as a blurring of the church and state line.

RICHARD NATHAN: On Mondays and Wednesdays, the idea that caring people in the community can make a difference in the way we provide social service seems to me intuitively quite compelling.

But on Tuesday and Thursday, I worry about crossing the line, so that religious groups, as the critics say, are doing things that involve getting people through proselytizing efforts to practice their religion and to become engaged in their church or their denomination. That’s not permissible. And yet, it’s very subtle.

JIM TOWEY: I think the focus should be on who’s the most effective provider. And when you look at results, and not religion– not whether the organization believes in God or not, but whether their program works– that’s how the decision should be made.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even as the administration steps up its faith-based program, studies comparing the effectiveness of religious and secular providers are inconclusive.