Faith-based charities ponder Bush plan

Use of federal funds nothing new, say area institutions

January 31, 2001|By John Rivera and Alice Lukens | John Rivera and Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

As the nation debates whether faith-based institutions should receive federal funding for charitable activities, many Maryland congregations say they have one good reason why President Bush's proposal can work:

They're already doing it.

Across the Baltimore metropolitan region, religious congregations are operating Head Start and after-school programs, and offering job training, addiction counseling and other outreach services that receive government money.

"It's already worked for years," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, which started the nonprofit Bethel Outreach Center more than 13 years ago. "Whether you're talking about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless, churches have been doing this successfully for years and at less cost than comparable government programs."

Many religious institutions offering such services have set up nonprofit corporations to separate their social service outreach from their religious activities. A 1997 study by Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research found that nine of 10 churches in Maryland provide one or more outreach services; one-fifth receive funds from local, state or federal government agencies; and a quarter of them have formed a separate tax-exempt organization.

President Bush's proposal unveiled Monday to create an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would make a separate entity unnecessary, allowing any church, synagogue or mosque doing charitable work to directly receive federal grants.

The federal funds, as much as $10 billion, could not be used for religious purposes and the faith-based groups receiving the grants would be prohibited from religious discrimination. There must also be secular alternatives available.

The proposal has been welcomed by many in the religious world.

"The religious organizations which serve people of all faiths do good service," said Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville. "Why shouldn't they be supported because they happen to be religious organizations, as long as there is no direct or indirect missionary intent?"

But some religious leaders, as well as officials in the nonprofit world, have voiced concerns.

`Grass-roots level'

"In principle, it could very well be a good thing because churches are in the community. We know what people need because we serve people at the grass-roots level," said the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which represents about 200 pastors of predominantly African-American and inner-city churches.

"But many times the government is wrong and the church must be prophetic," said Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East Baltimore. "We have to speak the truth in love, and many times, politicians don't want to hear what we want to say. You can't speak in that manner when you're on the government's payroll, so to speak."

Tom Trigg, program director of the Episcopal Church-based Cathedral House Re-Entry, an alcohol- and drug-treatment program in Mount Vernon, said he found the proposal "a little worrisome."

"I certainly wouldn't want to get involved in some kind of situation where we lose our effectiveness because we're wrapped up in administrative reporting, or we have to hire more people to do that sort of work instead of the work we should be doing," Trigg said.

For the most part, local officials of secular nonprofit organizations professed little worry that they'd be competing for scarce federal dollars with the region's religious institutions.

"Our faith-based institutions do need some assistance in the work that they do," said Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of Associated Black Charities. "They've been doing it for a very long time without any acknowledgement or assistance."

All the nonprofits are asking for is equal treatment, said Peter V. Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.

Seeking fair treatment

One thing the nonprofit community will be watching for in the Bush program is "essentially to make sure that it is treating the religious and the nonreligious fairly," Berns said. "That it isn't turning around and granting some kind of inappropriate benefit or advantage to religious nonprofits as opposed to nonreligious nonprofits."

Others, however, question how faith-based institutions will keep from proselytizing, and wonder whether government funding won't ultimately help a congregation advance its religious mission.

"Without knowing what the details are yet, we would have serious concerns about taxpayer dollars funding religion, concerns about government being in the position to pick and choose among religious providers and therefore among religions themselves," said David Conn, director of government relations and public policy for the Baltimore Jewish Council.

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