Monday, June 2, 2003

The Ehrlich administration says it remains committed to giving grants to religious charities, and could issue an executive order to accomplish the goal.

“We suspect you will be hearing soon about this,” said Henry Fawell, spokesman for Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. “It is not as if this has not been receiving any work.”

Mr. Ehrlich promised in December to present a faith-based program and create an office of faith-based and community initiatives that would report directly to him.

But his faith-based plans have taken a back seat while state officials struggle with budget issues and a looming $1 billion deficit.

Though no faith-based legislation emerged in the General Assembly session that ended April 8, legislators attempted to sink the Republican governor’s plans.

Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, Baltimore City Democrat, introduced a bill that would prevent religious groups that receive state money from discriminating against homosexuals in their hiring policies. The bill passed the full House but stalled in a Senate committee.

“The Democrats in the General Assembly did a good deal of talking about putting [up] roadblocks and tried a pre-emptive strike on the governor’s initiative, but they didn’t have anything to poke at,” said Richard Dowling, executive director of the Annapolis-based Maryland Catholic Conference.

Mr. Dowling and other advocates said they are waiting to hear Mr. Ehrlich’s plan, which comes on the heels of a federal initiative by President Bush.

The U.S. Senate pared down legislation sought by the president that would have given faith-based groups equal opportunities in funding. The amended version, which excludes all mention of faith-based groups, passed the Senate and is moving slowly toward passage in the House.

Mr. Bush set up an office of faith-based initiatives by executive order in 2001. He also has signed three other executive orders to set the initiative in motion, including one that will help level the playing field for religious and secular groups seeking federal money.

The Ehrlich administration has divulged no details about its faith-based initiative.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is in charge of it, and his spokeswoman, Regan Hopper, has said it is still one of the administration’s “top priorities.”

“The lieutenant governor is very determined to move forward on it,” she said, adding that an announcement about the initiative has not been scheduled.

Joseph Loconte of the D.C.-based Heritage Foundation said an executive order could be the best way for Mr. Ehrlich to implement the plan.

“State legislation has to be very specific about what it covers, but an executive order can be more broad and encompassing and not be challenged,” he said. “If you do it as state legislation, you would have to fight it out in the General Assembly.”

Mr. Loconte also said an executive order would prevent legislators from altering the initiative, as sought to by the Rosenberg bill.

“Religious groups have the right to hire people who think like them and share their beliefs,” Mr. Loconte said, adding that legislating a religious group’s hiring policies could infringe on its First Amendment rights.

Mr. Dowling said the Maryland Constitution gives the governor authority that many other governors lack, and that Mr. Ehrlich should take advantage of it.

“There are a good many faith-based communities in the state and particularly in Baltimore city where the populations of poor and near-poor families are high,” he said. “Some church groups would want very much to reach out to help, but they need direction and they need some assistance from the state.”

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