A melding of passion and money

SUN JOURNAL

Help: Two presidential candidates favor linking faith-based agencies with public funds, a proposal that is drawing mixed reviews.

July 29, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis | Georgia N. Alexakis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

For 14 years, The Door, an East Baltimore nonprofit community center, has operated on faith alone.

Located in an old Lutheran church, The Door has relied on individual donors and private foundations to sustain its summer day camp, job-placement program and drug-abuse support groups. The director, Jim Davenport, and his staff say they adhere to their fundamental belief that "Jesus Saves" -- as a banner in the building proclaims -- to carry them through long and underpaid workweeks.

"The carrying force, the passion to do our work," Davenport says, "comes from faith."

Now, after years of operating on a tight budget, The Door and other faith-based groups like it have become a plank in the presidential platforms of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore. Both have pledged, if elected, to link government and religious institutions to improve social-service programs.

Last week, 10 days after visiting The Door's North Chester Street site during a visit to Baltimore, Bush vowed to spend $8 billion in his first year in office to aid private groups that, among other things, work with children of prison inmates, offer after-school programs, treat drug addicts and provide homes for unwed mothers.

The reaction of faith-based groups has been mixed. With the lines between church and state blurring, some organizations have joined the American Civil Liberties Union in warning that government aid could threaten the autonomy of religious institutions and the secular nature of state-run agencies.

Yet more and more faith-based groups -- Davenport's among them -- say they are willing to set aside such niceties. Proposed tax incentives could elicit more private donations; direct government aid would strengthen the resources of nonprofit groups. State agencies no longer would have to turn away faith-based groups that are willing to share staff.

"Maybe it's because I'm right in the middle of it, and maybe I don't see the forest for the trees, but it seems so simple," Davenport says. "There's a problem, and we -- government and church -- need to solve it. Maybe we'll have some problems working together, but we'll get the hang of it."

Throughout the country, other faith-based programs are showing similar willingness to accept federal aid, which most legal scholars say is constitutionally permissible so long as the programs do not actively promote religion.

For the past 30 years, Freddie and Ninfa Garcia of San Antonio, Texas, have run a Christian-based drug-rehabilitation program that has benefited from state involvement. In 1996, Bush signed an executive order that barred secular agencies from discriminating against religiously affiliated groups. The order exempted the Garcias' Victory Fellowship, which they say has helped more than 13,000 addicts since 1966, from a state requirement that rehab centers have licensed counselors on staff.

The Garcias say the government can help in other ways, too. With a bigger budget, Victory Fellowship could better feed and house its clients. With more contacts in the public sector, addicts in recovery could be placed in better jobs.

The benefits of a church-state partnership do not escape Tom Lewis, either. The founder of the Fishing School, a faith-based social-service agency for children in Washington, says increased public aid might help reduce the time he spends as a "beggar" for private funding or buried under mountains of paper.

"They murder you with the paperwork," Lewis says. "I don't think the government understands that small ministries like ours don't have the money to hire extra staff to do everything they ask us to. Maybe if we work together, we can understand each other better."

Collaboration between church and state has gradually expanded since the 1996 passage of the welfare-reform law. That bill's Charitable Choice provision permits states to join with faith-based groups to provide government-funded welfare services.

Twenty states have taken advantage of the provision, establishing financial and other partnerships with faith-based groups, according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

A survey last year of 1,200 religious groups showed that while only 3 percent of them receive government funding, 36 percent would consider applying for it under Charitable Choice.

Not every faith-based group has expressed unqualified support for the proposed partnerships. Many worry that government money would also mean government meddling. Can a priest, for example, mention Christ in the course of counseling a drug addict? Or would that cross the line into outright proselytizing? The answers are still unclear.

"Initially, the idea that we are hearing falls on our ears in a positive way," says Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee. "But the pitfalls appear later -- the entangling alliances that happen when you have tax dollars flowing to religious groups."

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