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White House eases rules on federal funding for religious groups

Sep. 22, 2003 • Tuesday September 23, 2003

Religious groups can use money for social services

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The White House on Monday announced it has eased barriers that have kept faith-based organizations from receiving federal money for programs that help needy Americans.

Four regulatory actions announced last December were finalized, and six new regulatory or policy changes were proposed, said Jim Towey, director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“He wants to see results,” Towey said. “This is not about funding religion, but about funding results, and identifying the most effective providers and knocking down the wall that separates the poor from these programs.”

Bush has had little success in pushing his faith-based agenda through Congress, so he has used executive orders to implement much of it. Critics question whether the programs amount to a government endorsement of religion, a notion the administration has rejected.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Bush, via his faith-based initiative, “is trying to do by executive fiat what Congress will not let him do through legislation.”

Towey spoke to reporters after he and Bush met with Secretary Mel Martinez of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Elaine Chao of the Department of Labor, and four representatives of other Cabinet agencies to hear about how they are cutting barriers that have kept faith-based groups from obtaining federal grants to help people in need.

Towey predicted the changes will result in more faith-based organizations “seeking to compete for federal grants to provide these services, which they know how to provide very well.”

More than $30 million in new Compassion Capital Fund grants have been awarded to 81 organizations to help faith-based and community organizations that work with the homeless, people with addictions, and other Americans in need, HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen told reporters.

Later in the week, HHS Secretary Thompson will announce a new HHS program for mentoring children of prisoners to be funded by grants that faith-based organizations can apply for, Allen said.

Additionally, faith-based groups are eligible to compete for $8 billion in housing grants, Martinez said. In a statement, the White House said such funds could not be used to buy or fix a place of worship.

Chao said people pursuing faith-based careers can now use federal funds for their training. She called the changes “part of this administration’s ongoing effort to level the playing field for faith-based organizations.”

In addition, religious organizations that provide services to the needy will be able to maintain their religious character by using faith as a hiring criterion, she said.

Faith-based organizations should be allowed to “hire people of their own mission and vision,” Towey said.

Critics say that federally funded organizations should not be allowed to make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s religion.

“It’s the biggest ongoing controversy” related to federal funding of faith-based groups, Lynn said. “The idea that federal funds can go to groups that will hire on the basis of religion is a disgraceful setback of civil rights for all Americans.”

But White House counsel has reviewed the changes and determined they are on “very solid legal grounds,” Towey said.

Under regulations proposed by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, faith-based organizations would be able to apply for funding for community technology centers that provide the poor with access to information technology and training, the statement said.

The Justice Department proposed to change the government’s policy of giving forfeited assets of $50,000 or less to community groups for social services, such as low-income housing and community centers.

Under current policy, non-religious entities receiving property must use the property for specific purposes for five years, but religious entities have to agree never to use the property for religious purposes.

The new policy would mean that religious groups could use the property for religious purposes after five years, the statement said.

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