LA Times: Faith-based groups

4 Mar 2001

Ye of Little Faith? In God, Not the Government, They Trust

Some religious leaders have doubts that the bureaucracy can deliver federal funds without strings attached.

Los Angeles Times
Friday, March 2, 2001
By MARY ROURKE, Times Staff Writer


Ray Gimenez was excited when a government grant for $367,000 came his way two years ago. He had been operating Victory Center for homeless men and wanted to expand. The first $100,000 went to acquiring and remodeling Victory Garden, a similar home for women. Now, the government wants the money back.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development informed the Christian minister last fall that he would lose his grant unless he took religion out of his women's shelter program. No more Bible study, preaching or Scripture-based counseling. He complied, even though, he says, he made clear when he applied for the grant that his shelters in Clinton, Iowa, offer religion-based services. He was also told by HUD that he had to create a separate, secular board for Victory Garden. "I asked what they mean by 'secular,' " he recalls. "They told me they'd ask their lawyers and get back to me. I never heard anything."

Tangled in red tape, Gimenez finally cut the ties. But he is not out of the tangle quite yet. On Tuesday his board voted not to return the $100,000 that has already been spent on Victory Garden. Gimenez plans to fight, and whether he wins the battle or not, he has no doubt about his future with HUD. "We don't want their money, ever again," he says.

As President Bush develops his proposal to make federal dollars more easily available to religion-based social service programs, many religious leaders and others already working in the field remain skeptical. When he presented his plan in January, the most serious concerns came from liberal, secular voices such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. Now, misgivings are coming from many religious leaders, including a number of conservatives who otherwise favor Bush policies.

Some, like Gimenez, have been burned by government regulations that imposed changes they did not like. Others say the potential for government management problems makes Bush's offer less than appealing. Some members of religious minorities fear that the proposal will favor larger, better established organizations and that they will be overlooked. And there are some who warn that the grants lead to spiritual compromises; they say religion gets lost in the bargain.

Bush is clearly aware of at least some of these problems. When he introduced his proposal he said he intended to clear away bureaucratic obstacles. His proposal would allow religious communities to maintain their identities, keep their symbols on display and engage their philosophies as part of their programs. It would not, however, allow government funding for religious education or proselytizing.

Among the many early supporters of his plan were Call to Renewal, a national Christian network that fights poverty, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A group of African American pastors, including Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles and the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community in Boston, signed a pastoral letter encouraging cooperation and support between African Americans and the Bush administration.

Perhaps the highest-profile religious leader to criticize the Bush plan is Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, who recently raised questions on his television talk show, "The 700 Club." Bush's promise to make federal money available to all religious groups, including the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishnas, concerns Robertson. He referred on his show to the "brainwashing techniques," and "underhanded tactics" the groups have been accused of in the past. Representatives from those groups denied such charges.

Charles Colson, a convicted Watergate felon who now directs Prison Fellowship Ministries, is past the questioning phase. His national program has rejected government grants in some states because they would limit the religious component of his program. His ministries are funded almost entirely by private donations. All he asks of government is help getting access to prison inmates.

That much said, he is optimistic about the Bush proposal. "We'll gladly take aid when it doesn't compromise our proclaiming the Gospel," he says. "I've cautioned the Bush people that if they try to take the faith component out of programs like ours, they'll loose the value of the program."

Many others remain suspicious of government involvement, including the Rev. Stephen Burger, director of the Assn. of Gospel Rescue Missions in Kansas City, Mo. (The Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles is one of the 270 missions in the association.) Burger says that 17% of the association's members receive some money from state, county or federal government, but the money is used for feeding and transitional housing programs, for example.

For many veterans in the field, old scars linger. Burger still remembers an anti-poverty program he worked on 20 years ago that received a government grant, then lost it, because his group wanted to hold planning meetings in the evening so board members could attend but was told to meet during the day. "My argument with the government isn't how they want us to handle the religion question," he says. "It's the bureaucracy."

He is more optimistic this time, partly because of Bush's advisory team. (It includes Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, top Bush advisor Stephen Goldsmith and professor John DiIulio, who will direct the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Services.) "These men understand where groups like mine are coming from," Burger says. "In the past, I've seen nothing but disdain from government."

Jim Jewell, a media relations professional at the DeMoss Group in Atlanta, Ga., has worked in the field for 30 years, mostly for Evangelical Christian social service organizations. "This discussion is going on at every board of directors meeting I know of," he says about Bush's proposal. "They are worried that government grants are dangerous for churches. Their question is: What kinds of safeguards will be put in place?"

The worst case is what Jewell calls "the seductive slope. Get dependent on the money, then you're told you can't give a sermon, or use the name Jesus. Conform or you'll be shut down. And so you compromise."

Some large operations that already receive government support--Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, for example--may not be as vulnerable. Track records show their grants go to social services with measurable success. But the smaller religious communities, with less government experience, are the most vulnerable, says Jewell.

Others ask a more basic question: Is it moral to accept the money? "If a pastor of a church is engaged in a prophetic ministry, government funds are inappropriate," says the Rev. Eugene Williams, associate pastor of the Mount Olive Second Baptist Church in Watts. "It's like inviting Pharaoh to dinner the night of the Exodus." In his ministry, Williams organizes protests against government offices as well as corporations, to protect the rights of the underprivileged. Much of his work involves prison reform and education for African Americans.

He was a colleague of DiIulio's in Philadelphia before he came to Los Angeles 10 years ago, and they continue to work together on social reform programs. Williams says he has, "supreme confidence" in DiIulio but almost none in the faith-based initiative. He has seen federal partnerships destroy small congregations dependent on government aid that fell through.

One point Bush made about his partnership program caught the attention of religious minorities, in particular. Christianity accounts for more than 85% of the U.S. population, but Bush has promised equal-opportunity giving to churches, synagogues and mosques.

"How is the choice to be made between Muslim, Episcopalian, Jewish, Catholic and other groups?" asks Diana Aviv, public policy director for the United Jewish Communities. (The Jewish Federation in Los Angeles is a member of the Washington-based organization that offers health and human services.) "There needs to be public scrutiny of how funds are being spent."

Aviv was part of a group that recently met with Goldsmith from the Bush team. "The president wants to offer alternatives, secular or religious [social] services," she says. "That is laudable, but it would be very expensive. What do people do if they are part of a minority faith? It is hard enough to find a choice in big cities, let alone smaller towns."

The matter of who qualifies for grants is proving to be delicate. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League recently urged Bush not to give federal funds to the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has made anti-Semitic remarks. That sort of request could lead to "religious tribalism," says Dr. Maher Hathout. Senior advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, he worries that religious groups will fight one another for grants. "Litigation will certainly follow. I feel the country should be cautious about this proposal."


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