Taking a page out of President Bush's political play book, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday he would as governor make it easier for religious groups to obtain state grants for social programs that help the public.
The Baltimore County congressman said he would establish a Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as part of his strategy to encourage faith-based groups to buttress government social programs.
The office, which Ehrlich said would be largely funded through federal grants, would also scrutinize state government agencies for "discriminatory practices" against faith-based groups when compared with secular groups vying for the same grants or contracts.
"We are on the way to doing away with the demonization of faith-based groups," Ehrlich said yesterday while campaigning in Prince George's County. "It is constitutional. It works, and everyone knows it."
Ehrlich, who was joined by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel R. Martinez, said faith groups can fill critical voids in such areas as low-cost housing, drug treatment, tutoring, after-school programs and day care.
Ehrlich's opponent, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, also supports making it easier for faith groups to receive state grants and contracts.
Peter Hamm, a Townsend spokesman, said Ehrlich was stealing ideas that the lieutenant governor has been advocating for months - an accusation the campaign has made about several of Ehrlich's recent proposals.
"Reaching out to the faith-based community is something Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has long supported," Hamm said. "Bob Ehrlich keeps cribbing from [Townsend]. He proclaims no great respect for her, but he keeps stealing all of her stuff."
As lieutenant governor, Townsend launched the "Faith Partnership Initiative," which helps faith-based groups secure state dollars for their programs. Since its founding seven months ago, the initiative has trained more than 1,000 people affiliated with faith-based groups on the best ways to win financial backing from government agencies.
But Ehrlich said his proposal is broader than the lieutenant governor's program.
"This issue has not been a focal point in this administration by any stretch of the imagination," Ehrlich said
Ehrlich unveiled his plan after he and Martinez toured St. Paul's Senior Center in Capitol Heights. The apartment complex opened in 2000 after the church's development corporation raised $13.5 million in public and private funds.
Rev. Robert Williams, the church's pastor, said Ehrlich's proposal would make it easier for churches to do more projects that benefit the community.
"We have gotten some help from the current administration, but I would have liked them to be more responsive in some areas," Williams said of the state government.
Ehrlich's proposal is modeled after a similar office that President Bush established at the White House to identify impediments faced by faith-based groups seeking federal contracts.
"We all talk about `faith-based,' but what we are talking about is breaking down barriers," said Martinez, who also endorsed Ehrlich's candidacy.
"This is not about proselytizing - this is about helping the poor," he said.
Ehrlich stressed his state initiative would apply only to groups who use state funding for secular services or religious activities that are voluntary.