- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to create a new state Office of Faith-Based Community Services to help religious organizations that provide food, education, health care or other social services, he said Thursday.

Speaking to a convention of the United Missionary Baptist Association, Cuomo said the state must improve its relationship with the faith-based organizations that he said are “often the most trusted, reliable and effective providers of social services.”

The new agency is one of several proposals Cuomo has made as he seeks a second term in office.

The agency would help religious organizations and houses of worship find grant funding. It also would help religious groups work with government agencies to coordinate social services, and work with state economic development officials to “encourage the development of faith-based businesses,” according to a memo from Cuomo’s campaign.

“From providing a healthy meal, helping a former inmate integrate into the workforce, to providing after-school activities and educational support to our children, New York’s local faith-based organizations do extraordinary work,” he said.

The governor faces Republican Rob Astorino in next month’s election. Both candidates have courted religious groups by speaking at houses of worship and to gatherings of religious leaders.

Cuomo’s interest in the relationship between government and faith groups goes back to his time as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when in 1997 he created a Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships at the federal agency.

Many states including neighboring New Jersey already have similar agencies in place to assist religious groups.

Advocates for the separation of church and state are wary of the efforts, noting that governments shouldn’t give special treatment to private groups or individuals based on their religious beliefs - or lack thereof.

It’s always “a little troubling” when governments create offices that seem to single out religious groups for special treatment, said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The concern comes with the details of what this office would be doing,” she said. “Is it just outreach and connecting people? That’s one thing. Is it actually giving preferred treatment to organizations that are religious? That would be another.”

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