Boston Globe: Scientology and Farrakhan

28 Feb 2001

Many Jews hit faith plan funding
Boston Globe
By Mary Leonard


WASHINGTON - Jewish groups are expressing strong reservations about President Bush's plan to give ministries more access to federal funds for social services, and they are warning the White House that their support depends on its fortifying the wall between church and state.

"If this turns out to be a program where there is direct government funding of churches and synagogues and mosques to run social services with religious content, it will be almost universally opposed by all the national Jewish organizations, and by every indication, even more strongly opposed at the grass roots," Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in an interview yesterday.

Saperstein said if the president is determined to fund sectarian groups, he risks "a divisive battle here that will tear America apart along religious lines."

Last week, the Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the conservative Christian Coalition, put the White House on notice that his group had serious problems with the faith-based initiative if it meant the federal government would provide funds to groups such as the Hare Krishnas and Church of Scientology.

John DiIulio, director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said yesterday that he welcomes the "differences of opinion" as his staff begins what is expected to be a monthslong task of putting shape to Bush"s call to aid America"s "armies of compassion."

"It's important to discuss in a civil and honest way all the issues and concerns about the president's intiative, pro and con," DiIulio said. "Ours is a small-d democracy; we welcome it."

On Monday night, until nearly midnight, DiIulio answered questions at the annual meeting in Washington of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of 10 national and 113 local Jewish public policy and social service groups. Geoffrey Lewis, president of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, called DiIulio "a compelling speaker and personality." But Lewis said he has concerns about "what happens when you open the door" to funding religious groups.

"To the extent this proposal compromises or challenges the constitutional mandates that separate church and state, then you will have Jewish groups speaking with one voice, saying 'Be careful, we don"t want to go there,'" Lewis said.

Saperstein said most Jewish leaders support Bush's proposal to change the tax laws to increase charitable giving, and they would not object to making federal grants more available to secular agencies supported by sectarian groups, such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, or the Salvation Army.

But many Jewish leaders are uneasy about the constitutionality of Bush's call to expand "charitable choice." The provision in the 1996 welfare-overhaul law allows federal grants for job training and mentoring to flow to faith-based groups that incorporate religious content into their social ministries.

Yesterday, a broad-based group of religious and civic organizations issued "In Good Faith," a report that endorsed expanding government support for social ministries as long as none of the federal funds went to religious activities and clients had the right to a secular alternative. The group, which was supported by the Pew Charitable Trust, took three years to reach that consensus.

It could not agree on the charitable choice provision. Richard Foltin, legal counsel of the American Jewish Committee and a member of the group, said his organization adamantly opposes charitable choice because funding faith-based programs would undermine government neutrality toward religion, threaten the autonomy of faith-based groups, and promote proselytizing.

John Green, a professor of religion and politics at the University of Akron, said the opposition of Jewish groups to Bush's initiative should worry the White House. "If problems with this program vindicate their position - let's say money someday goes to Louis Farrakhan - the Jewish groups will be in strong position to say their concerns were raised and ignored," Green said.

Michael Bohnen, a past president of the Jewish Council in Boston, said many Jews already feel like outsiders in a pluralistic-faith society, and they don't want Bush's initiative to encourage Southern Baptists, for example, in their stated mission to convert Jews to Christianity.

Bohnen cited other concerns with the initiative, including whether the government would be forced to fund ministries that preach a message of hate or discrimination; who in government would make the decisions about awarding federal grants to religious groups; and whether alternatives to faith-based providers would be available to all clients, particularly those outside of urban areas.

Another issue is whether organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation, which for decades have received federal funds for social services, would find themselves in competition with new faith-based ministries for the same pool of money.

"If the president simply offers the same pot of money and dilutes it among more groups, there is no guarantee that a single additional needy American is going to be served," Rabbi Saperstein said.

Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, noted that secular Jewish agencies have been operating locally since 1895 and annually receive more than 60 percent of their funds from the federal government. Kaufman praised DiIulio's commitment to getting more resources to urban, faith-based ministries that mentor youths and work to curb youth violence, and she said she has seen the "transformational impact" of faith-based groups like Boston's Ten Point Coalition in curbing teen violence.

"The key question is, does it need to be done with public funds, and how is it going to be done?" Kaufman asked.

On the issue of grants, DiIulio said the White House office "is not funding anybody to do anything." On the issue of church and state, DiIulio said, "the religious stuff and the philosophical differences are governed by the evidence" of which social ministries work.

On whether he would prevail in the political fight over Bush's plan, DiIulio was less certain. "Maybe not," he said. "But we"re going to find out, aren't we?"


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