- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

The new White House office dealing with religion-based charities opened yesterday amid an unexpected flurry of phone calls and interest, officials said.

"A lot of them are curiosity seekers," Deputy Director Don Eberly said yesterday, just hours after his office opened. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there."

Many callers, he said, believe the office has money to distribute.

"That is completely wrong," he said.

Instead, the agency, known as the Office on Faith Based and Community Initiatives, will help direct policy and generate publicity for President Bush's effort to increase the role of private organizations in delivering social services that traditionally have been run by the government: homeless shelters, food pantries, drug treatment, child and adult day care, and a host of other efforts.

The first step is to identify existing federal programs that deal with private and religious charities and target any policies and procedures in place that tend to shut out such organizations. The White House office is reviewing the practices of five Cabinet departments: Justice, Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.

That review will take at least 180 days under the executive order Mr. Bush signed last month creating the office.

Other callers yesterday seemed interested simply in recognition. An unexpectedly large number, Mr. Eberly said, wanted to tell the White House about successful programs they were running but were not asking for money.

Mr. Eberly said another big misconception among callers is that his office will decide which are legitimate religious groups and which are not. That would lead to thorny questions like whether movements such as Scientology or the Nation of Islam are true religions.

Under Mr. Bush's plan, he said, that question will never come up. The only question will be whether a private charity, of whatever faith, has a successful program or a promising proposal to deliver social services. If it does, then the group should be eligible to participate in federal programs that are open to similar secular groups.

"We are simply creating a level playing field," Mr. Eberly said. "We are not going out and preferentially singling out particular groups."

Critics have said the policy could entangle government in religion by mixing federal money with church money used for purely religious purposes.

"I don't think they recognize the complexities of this, or if they do, they are papering over it," said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Mr. Conn said his organization and other critics don't doubt the sincerity of Mr. Bush's proposal, but they do question whether it is practical to do what Mr. Bush proposes within the limits of the Constitution.

"We intend to monitor this office as closely as possible," Mr. Conn said. "If they step across that constitutional line, we'll see them in court."

Mr. Eberly, however, says the Bush administration believes it can successfully navigate the tricky lines separating government, social work and religion.

"Our response is, as we've said all along and as federal policy now governs, we will not support religious activity," he said.

Some gray areas are likely to appear when it is not clear where social work ends and religious missions begin, but Mr. Eberly said he expects those to be far rarer than critics suggest.

"I think this aspect of the debate does not do justice to these faith-based providers," Mr. Eberly said. "They do not want to be corrupted by federal dollars or policy, and they do not want to violate federal policy."

The office hopes to pre-empt the bad publicity that such gray areas could generate by highlighting the numerous success stories they expect to discover, Mr. Eberly said. In that, he will have a powerful ally. Mr. Bush is likely to spend time promoting and visiting successful programs.

The new office has 10 employees in the main office and expects to have about two dozen people from the five Cabinet departments working on the policy review.

The central office staff will work out of a suite in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House and just steps from the Oval Office.

Although the office is not inside the White House, it appears it will have a high level of access to the president, Mr. Eberly said.

"Everybody recognizes that this may be the president's signature domestic initiative," he said.

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