Ehrlich readies `faith' funding

Governor emulates Bush in seeking aid to groups providing social services

January 25, 2003|By Ivan Penn and Kate Shatzkin | Ivan Penn and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is set to announce a plan next week to enable churches, synagogues and other faith organizations to seek government money to develop low-income housing, drug treatment initiatives and after-school and child care programs.

The governor said yesterday that he is finalizing details of the "faith-based" initiative - prominently mentioned during his campaign and his recent inaugural speech - as a way to encourage religious groups to help solve social problems.

"It's not to exclusively fund religious groups," Ehrlich said. "It's allowing the religious institutions to participate."

His announcement is awaited with both excitement and trepidation by congregations and nonprofit groups. Some welcome the opportunities the plan could bring; others raise concerns that in a tight budget season, religious groups getting into the business of service will edge out more established providers.

Critics say the governor's initiative - a local version of a strategy that President Bush proposes - is a renaming of existing programs that the state and the federal government have been funding for years.

"He's stealing our thunder," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We've done faith-based initiatives for years. We've given a lot of money to churches."

Rawlings and other city lawmakers plan to announce their own faith-based legislation in the coming days with legislators in Baltimore County and Prince George's County. But he did not disclose the details of their bill.

Ehrlich's plan is designed to expand religious groups' access to government dollars from sources that were prohibited in the past, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

The governor said he believes he can implement much of his program with an executive order and will not need the General Assembly to pass any legislation. But to access some federal money, at least part of the governor's program might need to rely on Bush's initiative, which is before Congress.

Although the Ehrlich administration is fine-tuning some of the details of his plan, so far it appears that the faith organizations will be required to form nonprofit corporations that would receive the government money, Fawell said. The money would not go directly into a church's offering plate.

The governor said New Psalmist Baptist Church is an example of what he intends to do. The West Baltimore congregation has a nonprofit arm that works on housing projects and after-school programs in the community around the church.

"That is the model," Ehrlich said yesterday. The Rev. Walter Scott Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached to comment.

Bishop James Rollins, who with his wife leads the 800-member nondenominational Living Waters Worship Center in Odenton, said he is eager to hear details of Ehrlich's plan. The congregation is applying to incorporate a nonprofit organization - which it plans to call the Bridge - to provide services ranging from emergency food and clothing to tutoring and mentors.

Rollins said he has no desire to proselytize through the nonprofit, nor does he believe that being a faith-based group will give him a leg up over other pro- viders looking for grant money: "I just think there are so many people with needs that we're just going to be another entity."

But to established nonprofits competing for money from a smaller state budget, that's a problem - especially if religious groups are favored for funding.

"We continue to see dramatic growth in the number of nonprofit organizations out there," said Peter V. Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which represents 1,200 religious and secular nonprofits.

"There's a lot of competition already. ... We certainly would, as we have with the Bush initiative, be monitoring to make sure this is keeping all charities on a level playing field."

For the past year, the state has run a "faith partnership initiative" through the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, overseen by Ehrlich's election foe, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

That project - which recruited nonprofit organizations to train religious groups in the basics of grant writing, forming nonprofit corporations and developing formal programs - has reached representatives of about 2,000 churches and synagogues, said the Rev. Theresa Mercer, a Baptist minister who coordinates the program.

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