- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

Religious leaders and faith-based ministries throughout the region yesterday gave approval overall to President Bush's plan to allow religious institutions doing charitable work to receive federal funds.
Most religious groups in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia said the extra money would help expand existing services to the homeless and counseling programs their ministries have been operating on private funds for years.
Government funding, for instance, would give the International Center for Christian Ministries Inc. in Fairfax County, Va., a chance to offer more substance-abuse counseling to members in surrounding communities, officials said.
Others, however, question how the government will end up monitoring these groups without overstepping its bounds. Some also caution that groups would begin to rely heavily on these funds, which eventually will run out. Private donations, they argued, last longer.
"It may make things worse," said the Rev. Imagene Stewart, the founder of the House of Imagene, a shelter in Northwest Washington for homeless veterans and battered women and their children.
"The more money we pour into homelessness, the worse it becomes," she said. "They'll come to rely on this funding and won't become self-reliant."
President Bush's plan, announced Monday, would allow any church, synagogue or mosque doing charitable work to compete for billions of dollars in government grants. It could not be determined yesterday how long the grants would last.
Under the plan, the estimated $10 billion in federal funds, however, could not be used for religious purposes and the faith-based groups receiving the grants would be prohibited from religious discrimination. The groups can keep their religious symbols, character and internal governance, but cannot use the funds for worship, instruction or as means for religious conversion.
The plan has some groups, including the National Urban League, concerned whether the proposal will breach the separation of church and state.
"We believe this risks breaching the time-honored constitutional separation of church and state," William Spriggs, director of the Institute for Opportunity and Equality in the league's Washington Operations Office, said in a written statement.
"Faith-based organizations traditionally are exempt from certain laws and rules of operation that apply to nonsectarian organizations and public agencies. Some religious institutions espouse views and practice forms of intolerance antithetical to prevailing American values," Mr. Spriggs added.
"The prospect of public funding for such institutions is deeply troubling."
Most area religious leaders, such as the Rev. Jonathan Weaver of the Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Upper Marlboro, Md., welcome the plan. Some said they will consider applying for such grants.
"It's a good thing," said Mr. Weaver, who also is the president of the Collective Banking Group, an empowerment group that represents more than 260 area churches and has an estimated 300,000 members.
Mr. Weaver said the plan also may prompt some church leaders to begin participating in community service. "The mere fact that the president has even talked about this should raise consciousness among some pastors who never thought about getting involved in community service," he said.
The Rev. Frank Tucker, of the First Baptist Church in Northwest, said he supports the plan because it calls for "the government and faith community to collaborate on helping improve people's lives."
"This plan is long overdue," said Mr. Tucker, who is the chairman of the Church Association for Community Services, which offers counseling and after-school programs for about 1,000 people each month.
Others such as the Rev. Jack Van Dyk, of the Christian Center in Alexandria, Va., said the plan, as it was announced, seems to be "good for society."
"Some people might get into a rancor about faith-based organizations receiving federal money," Mr. Van Dyk said, adding he hasn't yet seen any specifics of the plan. "But let's face it, these are the same groups that have been helping people for years. To give money to them is definitely the way to go."
But church leaders agree the plan may not be for everyone. They also wonder how the government will monitor the groups that receive funding.
"Can the faith-based groups be monitored by the government without the government overstepping its bounds?" Mr. Tucker asked. "That's the challenge, it seems to me."
Church officials also have questions about accountability. Some, such as Pastor Tim Goff of the New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burtonsville, Md., said there may be more accountability among faith-based groups that will get the money.
"It's possible that there's a higher level of accountability with these kinds of groups, granted there could be waste and abuse of it as well," he said.
Mr. Goff said he would welcome the funds, which would go toward building a halfway house or a homeless shelter.
Mr. Weaver said a group should expect to be scrutinized by the government if the group accepts the funds. "One should never receive money and think he or she can use it willy-nilly," he said. "If you accept money, expect to be able to account for it."

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