- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

President Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives said yesterday that the time for second-guessing the program has passed and that critics who say it blurs the separation of church and state are “alarmist,” during an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times.

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  • “ ’Can a religious charity provide a social service?’ is no longer a question. The question is ‘How?’ ” said Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI).

    Mr. Hein also said he is confident that the next president will continue the office, which was created by Mr. Bush during his second week as president.

    “All the candidates seem to be speaking favorably about faith-based programs,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any push for change.”

    The program has been under attack by many groups since its inception, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. James Towey, Mr. Hein’s predecessor who left in 2006, called Americans United and other critics of FBCI “secular extremists.”

    The Bush administration also has been beset by criticisms from FBCI’s first director, John DiIulio, and from his former deputy, David Kuo, who accused the White House of using the office to co-opt evangelical leaders and voters politically instead of using the office to help the poor.

    But Mr. Hein denied that FBCI has served as a political vehicle.

    Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said he will be watching to see whether FBCI is holding seminars and giving grants to groups in voting precincts crucial for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

    Mr. Kuo has charged that FBCI conducted events in key voting precincts for almost two years leading up to Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election.

    “I don’t there’s been any evidence of change,” Mr. Lynn said. “I don’t think there’s any way to salvage this office. I hope they just close it down.”

    Mr. Hein said that Mr. Kuo’s charges are “his opinion.”

    On the question of church and state separation, Mr. Lynn said “It is becoming clearer and clearer that the basic idea of this program, that you can just give money to pervasively religious groups and then expect them to spend it on secular items, is just impossible to achieve.”

    Mr. Hein said this critique is “alarmist” and “not an educated point of view.”

    He said that FBCI counsels religious groups away from seeking federal funds if their spiritual mission is too closely intertwined with their service activities, and the White House conducts training sessions on how to discern what is too much religion and what is not.

    Mr. Hein said that the church and state discussion is “a distraction.”

    Mr. Bush has “created culture change” through the FBCI, he said, by building upon President Clinton’s welfare reform to revolutionize the way that the government helps Americans, and citizens of other countries, in need.

    The most recent statistics provided by the White House show funding for faith-based programs did increase from 2003 to 2006, from $1.2 billion to $2.2 billion. Funding for nonreligious groups was far more substantial but decreased slightly, from $12.8 billion in 2005 to $12.5 billion in 2006.

    The White House said there were no statistics for nonreligious group funding prior to 2005.

    Part of FBCI’s aim has been to convince governors that they also should adopt a similar approach to faith-based groups because only about 20 percent of federal funds are doled out to competitors at the local level. State governments are given large chunks of money that can go separately to local aid groups.

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