- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

The Bush administration's faith-based initiative is catching fire among welfare researchers and in the public imagination, even as it remains a contentious legislative and legal issue inside the Beltway.
The president's push to allow religious groups to receive welfare grants is becoming better-quantified in states as it enters a third year, though how well the initiative will solve social problem requires tougher research, according to two recent forums here.
The White House and several federal agencies have promoted the idea at the grass-roots level for the past year, and many predict that enthusiasm for it will force new court rulings on church-state relations.
"The bully pulpit is working," said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, which started a $6 million, two-year assessment looking at all 50 states.
Mr. Bush's faith-based agenda is not really new, former White House official Stanley Carlson-Thies said Wednesday at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, held at the Brookings Institution. He said it began in the 1980s as a "renegotiation" of boundaries between government and religion.
"The initiative has always been a reinventing-government strategy," Mr. Carlson-Thies said.
Large faith-based groups long have worked with government welfare programs, but the new push is to bring in smaller groups.
Critics of the Bush initiative warn it was designed by Republicans to pay back religious conservatives and woo the black vote.
"This is the worst kind of politicizing of the church," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
To test the charitable-choice law, Americans United has sued Iowa for funding a prison ministry.
Rabbi David Saperstein, a lawyer and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, warned Thursday that the Bush plan was moving ahead in the Republican-led Congress without research on legal problems.
"The big debate is on employment discrimination," he said during an event sponsored by the Independent Sector and the Rockefeller Institute.
The faith-based agenda allows religious groups to hire fellow believers to provide welfare services.
Speakers at the conference Thursday and Friday at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda agreed that many legal problems can be avoided if religious ministries set up nonprofit arms to work with government funds.
The administration wants small urban or rural ministries to tap into welfare money, and for a year has put "technical assistance" workshops on the road to educate ministers. Federal agencies have tried to simplify application rules for welfare grants.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the University of Pennsylvania, who has researched the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives since it opened in February 2001, said the administration ran a successful national "road show" promoting its ideas in the second year.
"The [federal agency] efforts are only going to flourish in the third year," she predicted, adding that the debate over the faith-based initiative will "intensify as we gear up for the 2004 presidential campaign."
Mr. Nathan, who oversaw welfare policy in the Nixon administration, said the interest reminds him of the early days of President Johnson's Great Society, in the 1960s, when policy-makers and researchers zeroed in on urban and racial problems.
But he said that moving welfare to nonprofits at the state level might produce a popular social movement that Washington will have to pay for in the end.
"They are saying, 'Let a thousand flowers bloom,' and now they may have to water them," Mr. Nathan said.
Despite the budget crises in many states, he said, charitable tax incentives proposed in Congress and new social interest might generate backing.
"New money comes from new energy," he said.
Thomas Jeavons, general secretary of the Quakers in Philadelphia, said researchers still confuse houses of worship with religious "service organizations" and overlook the different theologies of social action, from Jews to evangelical Christians to Catholics.
"There is no such thing as generic religion," he said.
The Rev. Ray Rivera, a Pentecostal who leads the Latino Pastoral Action Center in Bronx, N.Y., said it is time for "indigenous" ministries to have access to welfare monies.
"It's been mainline dominated," he said, referring to other denominations. "But it shouldn't stay that way."

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