- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Nine in 10 U.S. religious congregations provide "human services" and rely mostly on volunteers, a research group reported yesterday.

"Many religious groups offer programs directly through their congregation, while some collaborate with other organizations to provide services," said the report by Independent Sector.

The profile of American generosity bodes well for the White House initiative to help faith-based organizations provide social services by clearing away regulations and giving them access to federal funds.

But challenges remain in such an ambitious social revolution, ranging from the capacity of churches to run service projects to the willingness of members to give up weekends to help the needy.

"We just don't know whether the religious congregations have the capacity to provide a whole list of human services," said Susan K.E. Saxon-Harrold, research director at Independent Sector.

She said religious groups "self-report" high rates of giving and volunteering, but the mechanics of an increase and cooperation with government funding is a frontier. "We need to know more," she said.

In announcing the program, President Bush yesterday appointed Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, as a national advocate, who will inform the White House on ways to increase public interest in the initiative.

"The president has asked me to look at increasing charitable giving," Mr. Goldsmith said in an interview. "I will try to rally that effort nationally."

Direct charity is the "most effective way of helping" because it avoids bureaucracy, he said. "I think America remains charitable and compassionate."

He said a proposed new charitable deduction could prompt individuals and foundations to give more cash to local service projects. And with training, people in suburban congregations could learn how to back urban projects.

"Suburban churchgoers care about this, but can't find easy outlets for urban social work," Mr. Goldsmith said.

While the Independent Sector report echoes other studies of the past decade on the generosity of houses of worship, other research has shown that churches rarely apply for "charitable choice" funds or to operate on-site services.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act's "charitable choice" provision allowed faith-based groups to apply for federal money in the same way as secular service groups do.

In receiving the money, the groups can keep their religious symbols, character and internal governance, but can't use the funds for "sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization."

Groups advocating the separation of church and state yesterday opposed the Bush initiative on legal grounds. But Congress is expected to be amenable because it passed the 1996 laws, and because Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, backed faith-based activity.

The problem may be in finding congregations that really want to get involved, said Mark Chaves, who conducted the 1998 National Congregations Survey.

It found that a third of all religious congregations were "willing" to receive government money for social services.

"But it's a big step from an initial willingness to have the administrative structure in place," said Mr. Chaves, a University of Arizona sociologist.

Fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 300,000 congregations have one staff member who spends at least a quarter of the job on social services. The most common service, the study found, can be typified by a cadre of 10 volunteers from a church helping at government-funded soup kitchens.

"The notion that congregational social activity is out there, and it will grow if we just help it more, is questionable," Mr. Chaves said.

Steve Burger, head of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and one of the 35 faith-based leaders who met with Mr. Bush, said the biggest change is the Bush executive order yesterday that five federal agencies may not deny funds or access to religion-related social services.

"We've been fighting for a level playing field for years," Mr. Burger said.

He said American generosity has increased for the nation's "skid row" Gospel missions, which in 10 years have seen donations rise from $35 million a year to $450 million now and 300,000 volunteers annually.

While Mr. Burger thinks the Bush proposal may be successful because it is "going to see things from the bottom up instead of the top down" and will "look for results," Mr. Chaves has doubts.

"We don't have any systematic evidence that faith-based services are more successful than the secular ones," he said.

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