Sunday, March 21, 2004

Faith-based organizations received more grant money from key government agencies in 2003 than in the previous year, according to numbers recently released by the White House.

Although the report from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives only looked at grants from five federal agencies, it offers a glimpse at the impact of President Bush’s faith-based initiative.

Lawmakers will weigh in on the effect of the faith-based initiative at a House Government Reform Committee hearing Tuesday.

The study reviewed $14.5 billion in competitive federal grant programs in 2003 at five major government agencies — the departments of Labor, Education, Justice, Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services — all of which have their own faith-based offices created by Mr. Bush.

The grants examined were those where groups applied directly to the federal agency, as opposed to applying to states doling out federal grant money.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who has followed the initiative, said the White House report is incomplete, and it’s “not necessarily clear whether they’ve made gains or not.”

The only way to truly measure that, she said, is to examine all federal agency grants to faith-based groups, not just five, and then compare them to pre-Bush years.

She said officials could have purposely picked agencies where the numbers were good.

“If you’re going to provide an overview, you need to look at everything,” she said.

According to the report, the Health and Human Services Department awarded 680 grants to faith-based organizations in 2003 — an increase of 41 percent from 2002 when 483 grants were awarded. HHS grants to such groups totaled $568 million in 2003 compared with $477 million the previous year.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, faith-based groups received 765 grants last year, a 16 percent increase from 659 given in 2002. Total grant money awarded in 2003 was $532 million, compared with $479 million in 2002.

The other three agencies did not release specific comparisons between the two years.

The number of new faith-based groups receiving federal grants for the first time also increased. At HHS, 129 grants went to faith-based groups that were first-time recipients in 2003, compared with 86 the previous year. And HUD gave 52 grants to first-time recipients, up from 37 in 2002.

The purpose of Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative was to change what supporters saw as a government attitude that was cold and hostile to faith-based groups that wanted to use federal funds.

Mr. Bush hasn’t had much luck in pushing his broad faith-based initiative through Congress, but he has sought to change the atmosphere by establishing faith-based offices in seven agencies, creating a technical assistance fund for small social service charities, and issuing an executive order discouraging discrimination against faith-based groups when distributing federal funds.

Critics of the faith-based initiative say it blurs the line between church and state.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that while the March report is more a “spin document” than concrete evidence, it does indicate that Mr. Bush is tipping the scales too far in favor of faith-based groups.

“It’s another signal that any group that wants government money should act religious and they’ll get it,” he said.

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