- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

The administration yesterday announced rules changes for several agencies that will further President Bush’s faith-based initiative by making federal funds more accessible to religious social-service providers.

“This is not about funding religion, but about funding results and identifying the most effective providers and knocking down the wall that separates the poor from these programs,” said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Four finalized rules and another six proposed rules aim to bring agencies in line with the president’s December 2002 executive order requiring “equal treatment” of faith-based groups, prohibiting denial of federal funds simply because of religion. Mr. Bush wants agencies to make “the playing field level” by removing barriers that impede religious groups from federal support, Mr. Towey said.

Mr. Bush couldn’t get the bulk of his faith-based initiative through Congress so he used the executive order to accomplish many of the same goals.

“It seems like more of the same, which is an effort to generate policy through executive fiat because Congress will not go along with your idea,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said about yesterday’s agency changes.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized a rule change yesterday that will make $8 billion in grants more accessible to religious groups. Specifically, a group will no longer have to form a secular nonprofit arm to receive HUD money to build or repair a building for social service.

Instead the religious group itself can receive HUD money, but only for the portion of the building used for nonreligious activities. For instance, if a religious group wants to build a facility to be used 70 percent for a soup kitchen and 30 percent for religious activities, HUD will pay 70 percent of the cost.

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said her agency is proposing a new regulation that will allow job-training vouchers to be used by people pursuing religion-related careers. Labor also proposed final rules allowing religious groups to contract with the department even if they hire only people of their own faith.

The hiring issue was the main reason the president’s original faith-based proposal stalled in the Senate. Critics such as Mr. Lynn say it amounts to government-funded religious discrimination.

The Department of Justice yesterday also proposed a new rule that Mr. Lynn said “raises very significant constitutional issues.” Currently, Justice can give buildings seized in law-enforcing raids to religious or secular social-service groups. But while secular groups can use buildings for any purpose after five years, religious groups can never use them for religious activities. Justice yesterday proposed allowing religious activities on the same basis after the five-year period.

Mr. Lynn said this bucks a Supreme Court ruling that government-funded school buildings must never be used for religious purposes, even years down the line.

The Department of Health and Human Services also finalized rules yesterday clarifying the implementation of “charitable choice,” which currently applies to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Community Services Block Grant program. Charitable choice, which includes the contentious hiring protections, was first applied to these programs in 1996, but an HHS spokesman said the department needs to put regulations in black and white.

HHS also announced $30.5 million for a fund created two years ago to provide technical assistance to very small religious and secular charities.

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