- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002


Acting without congressional approval to implement President Bush's stalled "faith-based initiative," five Cabinet agencies are writing rules to help churches and other religious groups obtain millions of federal social service dollars with few strings attached.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials will let churches, synagogues and mosques use federal money for programs infused with faith and will let the groups consider religion a factor in hiring and firing workers.

It only makes sense, said Roberta Jones, president of Cleveland-based Life Alternative Inc., one of 562 applicants for the new grant program. Imagine, she said, if a victim of domestic violence asked for help.

"The first thing I'm going to do is pray with you," said Miss Jones, whose group helps churches apply for government grants. "I'm now using my religious art to really minister to this person. I'm going to go to the very thing that I'm comfortable with."

HHS officials say using tax dollars is no problem for a program in which prayer is central. Congress has refused to endorse that position, which is hotly disputed among Americans.

If tax dollars are used for secular elements of the program such as a computer or a van the rest can have a religious base, said Robert Polito, director of the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"We wouldn't be called the faith-based office if we weren't trying to see how we can partner with the faith community," he said. "We don't have to take the temperature of the religiosity of the program."

Congressional action on Mr. Bush's effort is stalled over such questions as how much religion is too much when government money is involved. Also in contention is whether to let government-funded religious groups discriminate in hiring.

The House approved a bill that had most of what Mr. Bush wanted. But in the Senate, supporters have failed to get a vote on even the watered-down version of the bill they introduced.

In the meantime, HHS is writing rules on its own, and other agencies are preparing to do the same.

Critics are furious.

"The administration seems to say, 'We couldn't get the votes in Congress, so we're going to hijack every dollar we can and move it into faith-based ministries,'" said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are set to rewrite regulations governing eight grant programs that bar funding to religious groups if they are unwilling to hire people of all faiths.

"That creates an impediment to faith-based organizations that's unnecessary," said Steven Wagner, director of HUD's "faith-based" office.

At the Education Department, officials are interpreting a new federal law on after-school programs as allowing groups to use religion in making their hiring decisions. That prompted protests from Democrats who said they specifically barred this discrimination under a carefully negotiated compromise.

"Unfortunately, the department's draft guidance interpretation effectively nullifies this compromise language," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrats on the Senate and House education committees, wrote to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Initiatives also are advancing at the Justice and Labor departments. However, the effort is moving in dramatic fashion at HHS, which has new money to spend.

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