- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

The number of faith-based groups using government funds to provide social services has grown in the past two years, and state and federal agencies seem more willing to parcel out smaller grants to ministries, according to a new survey of 15 states.

The study, released by the Hudson Institute and the Center for Public Justice at a forum here yesterday, is said to confirm that the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, built upon the 1996 welfare reform law, is having an effect.

There is "not a lot new" about churches helping youth, families and the poor, said Amy L. Sherman, a Hudson Institute scholar who conducted the research.

"What is new," she said, "is that the government is helping to pay some of the bills of these organizations."

She found that under four federal programs covered by the 1996 charitable-choice law, 15 states now have 726 faith-based clients receiving a total of about $124 million in funds.

In a more controlled comparison, nine of those states now total $88 million in faith-based funding this year compared with just $7.5 million in 2000.

Miss Sherman said the data, which is not comprehensive, found two significant shifts. More "very, very small contracts" are being made with local ministries and a "significant minority" of contracts are made directly with a church, not its nonprofit affiliate.

The 1996 charitable-choice law allowed such direct contracts, though a church must also set up an accounting and reporting system for how the money was used for a social service like housing, youth work, or anti-drug services.

Since the faith-based initiative arose in the 2000 presidential campaign, critics have said it will entangle government with religion and lead to government-backed discriminatory practices by faith groups.

Political scientist Corwin Smidt said the problem of government interfering with faith groups that take funding apparently has not cropped up in the new projects.

"The short term is looking OK," said Mr. Smidt who attended the forum at the National Press Club. "Long term, the question is whether government funding and compliance will change or shape religious life."

Miss Sherman said the report "in no way represents the entire universe of what is happening," but that "a faith-based friendly environment" has begun to take hold in many of the states.

At the forum, Jim Towey, director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said collecting data on religious social services is a delicate matter for the government, since such inquiries can scare religious workers.

"It's a Catch-22," said Mr. Towey, who took over the office early this year. "How do you get the data of what's going on in the country? We're trying to maneuver through that." He welcomed the independent research.

Meanwhile, Mr. Towey said his office is "working hard to pass legislation in the Senate" that, when combined with a House bill, would provide more incentives for charitable giving and support of faith-based services.

"We may see this [bill] come out of the Senate Finance Committee in a couple of weeks," Mr. Towey said.

The forum also included presentations by a county official and a black pastor from Ohio on how a church gears itself to work with a federal grant and how a local government finds promising candidates who can understand the process.

"We have to provide services, and we have to be willing to service," said the Rev. Jeffrey Dennis, whose church has a contract to work with boys ages 8 to 16.

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