New Md. agency to aid faith-based groups

Ehrlich's order creates office despite Assembly's opposition

October 08, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

For two years, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has followed President Bush's lead as he tried to create a state office to assist faith-based groups and other community programs.

Twice, a Democratic-controlled legislature dashed those plans, passing laws that prevent the governor from spending money on such an effort.

Yesterday, Ehrlich tweaked the name of his proposed agency and signed an executive order establishing the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives. The office will provide state assistance and coordination to religious institutions and other community-service groups, and it will work with the federal faith-based office backed by Bush.

The executive order does not require approval from lawmakers, who seven months ago rejected Ehrlich's plan for a slightly different Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. While the governor said he would abide by the Assembly's spending prohibitions, he thinks the concerns of lawmakers are overstated.

"The fringe-left get all excited when you talk about faith-based institutions helping anybody," Ehrlich said.

The new office has no state money to distribute to religious and community groups, Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said. While an executive director was named yesterday, other staff will be on loan from other state agencies, they said. Steele will monitor the office's activities.

Still, some critics said yesterday that the governor was deliberately skirting the spending restrictions of lawmakers and that he ran the risk of violating the doctrine of church-state separation.

"In my judgment, he is doing an end-run around the legislature," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The state of Maryland now has a faith-based office. If it walks and talks like a faith-based office, it probably is one."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller accused Ehrlich of trying to satisfy GOP conservatives with his announcement and said the Assembly will keep close tabs on the office's operations.

"I think he is doing this to appease the Bob Jones University-wing of the Republican Party, at the same time as giving the lieutenant governor something to do," Miller said.

"Almost all oppression, all wars were caused by wrong-minded persons pushing one form of religion over another," Miller said. "We don't need to return to those days where one religion is favored over another, or government is involved in religion in any way, shape or form."

Lawmakers say that faith-based groups receive state funding for programs and say they are not certain why a new executive office is needed to oversee or coordinate spending.

During a morning announcement yesterday, Ehrlich and Steele highlighted several projects they said illustrated the types of partnerships between the state and nonprofit groups they hoped to repeat, indicating that Ehrlich's administration has been undertaking some activities even before the formal creation of an agency.

Those partnerships included the Sanctuary at Kingdom Square, a large Baptist church in Capitol Heights that is refurbishing a dilapidated strip shopping center inside the Capital Beltway for church activities and other uses.

"The state's role was to assist Glendale Baptist Church in securing financing, legal counsel and other resources needed to turn this mall into a thriving economic engine," said a news release from the governor's office.

But Ehrlich's highlighting of the project drew criticism on two fronts: Critics said state resources should not be used toward the construction of a church, while church officials said the state did not play a role in the project.

According to the church's Web site, Glendale Baptist purchased the 254,000-square-foot shopping center and plans to convert it into a 3,000-seat sanctuary, along with "a performing arts center, a Gymnasium and Fitness Center, the New Generation Christian Academy, a food court" and more.

Lee Wildemann, head of the state Office of Service and Volunteerism - which is being folded into the new community initiatives office - said that two employees in Steele's office met with church officials and made telephone calls to help secure financing for the project.

"They connected them with private banking institutions," Wildemann said. "Bank of America stepped forward."

Lynn said such involvement by state workers is inappropriate. "I don't think that Maryland state employees should be or can be involved in brokering financial deals for what essentially is a mega-church operation," he said.

But the pastor of the church, Anthony G. Maclin, disputed the state's description of its role yesterday. "I'm not trying to create any waves, but I am highly offended that they would even imply that they are the catalyst that made this deal happen," Maclin said. He said the lieutenant governor's office did not help the church get financing with Bank of America.

The executive director named yesterday for the Community Initiatives office is Betsy Nessen Merrill, who had been assistant development director for the Johns Hopkins University Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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