- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

A poll released yesterday has found that 75 percent of Americans favor allowing religious groups to apply for federal grants to deliver social services, encouraging supporters of President Bush's faith-based initiative.

"There's broad support for these healing institutions," said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican. "We've got some details to work out, but the public support is there."

The Pew Research Center survey of 2,041 persons showed that 75 percent supported the concept of faith-based funding, while 21 percent opposed it. A Pew poll taken in September found 67 percent of respondents favoring such a plan.

"Americans share the president's commitment to reaching out to faith-based groups and charities because they have a proven record of changing and saving lives," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in response to the survey.

The new poll also found a sizable split between Republicans and Democrats. Eighty-one percent of Republicans support government funding for faith-based social services, while 70 percent of Democrats do. In September, Democrats supported the concept more than Republicans, 74 percent to 63 percent.

Mr. Bush's proposal, which is at the core of his "compassionate conservative" agenda, would allow churches and other religious institutions to apply for federal money to operate drug-treatment centers, food banks and other services for the needy. It also would use a wide range of tax credits to encourage charitable donations.

The plan has run into opposition on the left and right from critics who say the plan would violate the constitutional separation of church and state, and would encourage government-sponsored proselytizing.

Advocates of the faith-based initiative will hold an event today in Washington to announce more conservative support for the plan.

A sponsor of the faith-based bill in the House, Rep. Tony P. Hall, Ohio Democrat, agreed with Mr. Santorum that the new survey gives the legislation a boost.

"I don't think it will pass the legislation, but it will help," Mr. Hall said. "That's a substantial margin."

The poll does contain cautionary findings. While overall public support for the concept is high, respondents were less enthusiastic about government funding for social programs operated by groups other than Judeo-Christian institutions.

Asked who should be eligible for government funds, 62 percent of respondents supported the proposal for Catholic churches. But evangelical Christian churches received 52 percent support, Muslim mosques rated 38 percent and the Nation of Islam received 29 percent support. The Church of Scientology was supported by only 26 percent of respondents.

Mr. Santorum said the program would determine eligibility on a group's track record, not its religious affiliation.

"This program will evaluate these faith-based institutions based on whether they accomplish what the program is set up to accomplish," Mr. Santorum said. "If the Buddhists can run a good drug and alcohol center to change people's lives, great."

Said Mr. Hall: "If these religious groups have a proven record, they can enter into the competition. If they're doing the job, they ought to be allowed to compete" for federal funding.

The Senate bill creates more tax credits for charitable giving but at the moment lacks a provision to allow for government funding of religious groups. Mr. Santorum's co-sponsor of legislation in the Senate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said through a spokesman yesterday he still has reservations.

"It seems like there's broad support for the overall goal," said Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein. "He's optimistic that we can find a way to do this."

But Mr. Gerstein said Mr. Lieberman is still seeking "strong civil rights protections" to ensure that groups eligible for such a program would not discriminate, for example, in hiring and firing practices.

The news of increasing public support for the concept comes as advocates have scheduled an event today in Washington with John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith and Community Initiatives, to introduce more conservatives who are backing the proposal. One of the organizers is Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

"It gives it tremendous momentum," Mr. Woodson said of the Pew survey. "Politicians can read. It means [Americans] overwhelmingly support the president's initiative."

Mr. Woodson, who is black, said the faith-based proposal "is to the poor what the civil rights movement was to black Americans."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing May 1 on government funding for religious groups.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House GOP, will hold a two-day conference later this month in Washington with more than 300 religious leaders in support of the initiative.

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