- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

The debate over faith-based charity is revealing a split among the nation's ethnic and religious cultures.

Minority religious leaders who work with urban blight are backing the administration's call to expand a 1996 law allowing ministries to use federal welfare funds, but academics who advocate church-state separation oppose it as a merger of public money and religion.

The debate also is highlighting a difference in outlook between suburban houses of worship, which are predominately white and focused on doctrine and membership, and in black and Hispanic urban ministries.

"There's a cultural differentiation," said Bishop Harold C. Ray, a West Palm Beach minister who heads the National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives, which will hold a Capitol Hill conference for clergy on April 25.

"In the civil rights era, the churches were the only meeting halls available, and now they are the place for social service and cultural renewal in cities," he said.

While church-state lawyers, advocacy groups and some clergy warn that expanding the 1996 law would create religious strife or force religion on the needy, inner-city church leaders say they are pragmatic.

"The benefit is real clear to us," said the Rev. Alice Davis, executive minister at Shiloh Baptist Church in the District of Columbia, which provides youth and elderly services. "We need the money."

Kevin J. Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said direct federal grants to ministries are "problematic," but that legal ideology drives the dispute.

"Academic critics look at urban churches and charitable choice and say it may work in practice, but it doesn't work on paper," he said.

Surveys on welfare ministry by churches show they are primarily urban, and that black congregations and more liberal churches are far more likely than conservative churches to operate them and use government funds.

John DiIulio, the director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has said the Bush agenda seeks to "devolve" welfare funding to the most local, effective outlets, to include faith-based groups "that have shown their ability to save and change lives."

Mr. DiIulio told a recent National Association of Evangelicals gathering that white suburban clergy "should be careful not to presume to speak" for urban ministers who are less worried that partnership with government will diminish their religion.

"Compared to predominantly ex-urban white evangelical churches, urban African-American and Latino faith communities have benevolent traditions and histories that make them generally more dedicated to community-serving missions," he said.

The comment prompted some conservatives to call for his firing, and when black clergy visited the White House last week, they pointed to a racial divide over the social role of urban and suburban churches.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president intentionally is "meeting with the left and he's meeting with the right, and he's building bridges between the two."

Last week, pro-family activist Connie Marshner gathered conservatives on Capitol Hill to promote consensus around the Bush initiative, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell said in his March 22 newsletter he was "excited to see how his charitable choice plan can positively impact … our nation's troubled inner cities."

He said the initiative was to serve the needy, not "disseminate religious messages," but urged that access to funding not "water down their faithful messages which make them distinct."

The Rev. Robert Wenz, a member of the National Association of Evangelicals board, said its members are struggling with a move from mostly evangelism to more social welfare engagement.

"Historically, the black church has been more than the church; it's been the community," said Mr. Wenz, pastor of Derwood Alliance Church. "If I did some of the things done in the inner city, I would lose my tax-exempt status with the IRS. That's the reality."

The left's strongest criticism of charitable choice comes from lawyers and lawmakers with predominantly white mainline Protestant or Jewish constituencies.

"I would hope the mainline Protestants will take a leading role in speaking out for the principle of separation of church and state," said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat.

Competition for charitable choice money, he said, is "a guaranteed prescription for religious strife in America."

But Mr. DiIulio has argued that the nonprofit welfare system, built over 40 years, is not efficient and has never undergone a "performance-oriented audit" to judge how it helps people.

He said there is evidence that small urban ministries are effective, but always underfunded.

"They deserve more help, public and private, both human and financial," he said.

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