Governor to expand faith plan amid flap

Bush is pushing faith-based efforts for the needy despite criticism and court battles.

TALLAHASSEE — Ignoring objections from critics and looming court battles, Gov. Jeb Bush is expanding his quest to hand over state dollars to faith-based organizations to care for Florida’s neediest citizens.

Mirroring his brother’s 2001 creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Gov. Bush issued an executive order in November formalizing a similar advisory board of religious advocates and others, many of whom contract with the state.

The order, which calls for the panel to issue a written report by Feb. 1, lays the foundation for the board by acknowledging that “faith-based and community-based organizations have cared for many of Florida’s neediest citizens, and historically have been indispensable in serving Florida’s most under privileged children, families and neighborhoods.”

Gov. Bush’s executive order came amid a losing five-year legal challenge over school vouchers. The Florida Supreme Court is poised to consider whether to uphold three lower court rulings that found taxpayer-funded vouchers given to students in failing public schools used to pay for private, including religious, schools are unconstitutional.

Proponents of faith-based initiatives assert that religious and charitable organizations have a long history of caring for the poor and needy, while critics charge that the lines blurring church and state indicate that government is giving up its social and moral obligation to its citizens.

“The plan boils down to something like dumping the poor on the church steps one day, leaving a small bag of money there the next day and praying the two of them get together,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State of Washington, D.C.

“That’s a completely crazy way of dealing with social problems.”

The faith-based movement gained prominence in 1996, when departing Attorney General John Ashcroft, then a U.S. senator, was the force behind a law inviting religious institutions to play a role in federal welfare reform.

Under President Bush’s expansion of faith-based support, nearly $65 billion in federal grants is available to a host of religious and community organizations, and groups that have long provided these services — paid for solely by the support of parishioners — are now eager to join the for-profits already at the outsourcing table.

Gov. Bush established the nation’s first faith-based prison, and other agencies contract with faith-based providers, including Place of Hope, a group-home foster-care provider affiliated with Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens.

But, as on the national level, no one knows exactly how much money from state coffers is going to organizations such as Place of Hope. Each state agency contracts separately with the vendors, and state officials do not differentiate between faith-based and traditional providers.

“We don’t have dollars earmarked for faith-based organizations or groups,” said Alia Faraj, Gov. Bush’s spokeswoman. “There is accountability in the system because these are contracts entered into between the state agency and the entity, and just as other contracts, whether faith-based or not, they have to meet all the obligations of the contract.”

Making the financial trail even murkier are intermediaries, larger agencies such as United Way, that typically have more resources and expertise with securing federal and state dollars and that have the ability to dole out grants to whomever they choose, but which critics characterize as another bureaucracy.

The Governor’s Faith-Based and Community Advisory Board is supposed to educate communities about opportunities to partner with the government and help those organizations identify intermediaries, work with local governments and establish best practices, said Liza McFadden, president of the Volunteer Florida Foundation, which oversees the board.

Florida’s board, which has 25 members Bush appointed, reflects efforts in Washington. If the national model is replicated here, religious leaders who now laud efforts to allow them to join private enterprises at the public trough may object to others afforded the same opportunity.

“You’re creating legal precedent that any religious organization may come forward and receive this funding,” said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach.

“You can’t start saying it’s OK for Christian and Jewish organizations but it’s not OK for the Taliban, or radical religious organizations whose practices many people would find reprehensible.”

In California, for example, disciples of the Rev. Sung Myung Moon, the controversial leader of the Unification Church, received federal grants to conduct marriage and celibacy training through the Department of Health and Human Services.

Moon achieved renown as a minister who performed mass marriages, many of which church leaders arranged, in football stadiums.

And a former critic of the president’s faith-based model, the Rev. Pat Robertson, is now a champion.

Robertson’s Operation Blessing International received a $500,000 federal Compassion Capital Fund grant, half of which he keeps and half for which he acts as an intermediary.

“Here’s a guy who’s banned any religion but his own,” said Lynn, who is involved in a lawsuit against a faith-based prison in Iowa similar to Florida’s. “And he’s supposed to distribute the money to other religious groups. That’s ludicrous.”

Like it or not, the faith-based movement is here to stay, experts agree. That “change in the culture” pleases advocates such as Charles Bender of Place of Hope, the only local advisory board member.

“To say you can’t apply because you’re religiously based is just crazy,” said Bender, whom President Bush has tapped to sit on national panels several times. “Faith-based groups a lot of times can be more effective than non-faith-based groups, but in many ways are locked in the closet as far as funding goes. What I’m seeing across the board is a general acceptance level that’s improved over time that allows faith groups to apply. That doesn’t mean they’re getting the money.”

As long as faith-based instruction does not include proselytizing or evangelizing, it is considered acceptable under the federal constitution.

Florida’s constitution is even stricter: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Place of Hope’s Web site promotes the Christian evangelical beliefs of its founder, and touts programs such as “Awana, a nondenominational ministry that assists churches in reaching children and teenagers with the gospel of Jesus Christ and in training them to serve Him.”

Although the site includes a disclaimer that participation in such activities is not mandatory, critics wonder how optional can be a weekly program for displaced children trying to please their foster parents, many of whom are members of Christ Fellowship Church.

“How voluntary is participation for a child in crisis under these circumstances?” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Place of Hope, which has a capacity of serving 24 children, received about $440,000 from the state last year, nearly $2 million in donations and has assets of more than $4.1 million, according to federal tax forms. Bender earned $75,000 last year as executive director.

“My concern is this: If people are truly concerned for the hurting, this is not a bad thing to look at,” he said. “Period.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Palm Beach Post, USA
Jan. 3, 2005
Dara Kam
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 3, 2005.
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