- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2001

If you were homeless, drug addicted or battered or all of the above wouldnt it be nice to get just one break in your favor? Having the freedom to choose where to go for help could make a life-changing difference.

Some individuals may chose a certain program simply because they are encouraged by the warmth, patience or energy of the people. A secular program, emphasizing personal responsibility, potential and hope, could provide the impetus for some individuals to make a change. Others may be uplifted spiritually through faith, regardless of how their past or circumstance may mark them.

Unfortunately, a serpentine array of government regulations, practices and cultural tendencies often makes it difficult for faith-based organizations to receive support for their good works. Although legislation passed in 1996 allows states to opt for a charitable choice approach to social services, a combination of inertia, lack of organization and failure of the federal government to eliminate obstacles has caused most local governments to take a pass on faith-based organizations.

President George W. Bush has put John J. DiIulio, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in charge of identifying the factors that impede fair access to federal grants and ability to implement charitable choice. The White House is also seeking to introduce new tax credits to motivate charitable giving. Mr. Bush´s promise to bring faith-based organizations into the mix of social services has run into a good deal of controversy for a variety of reasons. There are ways, however, this can be done which will preserve both the element of faith and the element of choice, empowering the individual in need of help.

Mr. DiIulio ought to consider a charitable choice approach to federal social programs, such as juvenile delinquency, after school care, child care, federal housing and prevention of domestic violence initiatives. As a model, the federal government should take its cue from states´ successful child-care choice programs. Legislation approved in 1990 allowed states to provide public funding to child care providers, in direct proportion to how many children were entrusted to their care.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of 2,041 persons, 75 percent of those polled supported the concept of faith-based public funding, while 21 percent opposed it. Unfortunately, some of the prejudices of society at large were also reflected in the Pew poll. While 62 percent of respondents supported public funding for Catholic churches, only 52 percent supported this type of funding for evangelical Christian churches and just 38 percent for Muslim mosques.

Some compelling challenges do indeed arise from a charitable choice approach to social services. What qualification criteria should the government set, for example? How can the bureaucratic burden on the participating organizations be minimized? Will access to federal funds erode the spiritual thrust of some groups?

Despite the difficulties, however, charitable choice appears to be a good way to give individuals access to services that best suit them, and maintain a healthy distance between church and state while respecting, at the same time, individuals´ freedom of religion and speech.

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