Saturday, February 14, 2009

Federal funding for churches stirs debate

Telegram Staff Writer

Government funding: Should it go to religious organizations?
That's a tricky question to answer, and it depends on who's answering.
'Absolutely not,' say people like Derek Davis, a University of Mary Hardin-Baylor professor. An advocate for religious freedom, Davis believes it is a breach of the separation of church and state.
'And the separation of church and state is a good thing,' Davis said. 'It's part of what our country was built on. It gives us the freedom to worship how we choose, free of government's control.'
When the government gives churches money, Davis said that freedom is threatened.
That's the main point of an essay Davis wrote for the UMHB Center for Religious Liberty. It was in response to President Barack Obama's Feb. 5 decision to replace the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives with a similar Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The Initiatives program started in 2001 by executive order of former president George W. Bush. The goal was to make federal funds available to churches and other faith-based, non-profit organizations that provided social services for the well-being of communities.
'The money was to go for things like drug rehab or women's shelters,' explained Chris Bugbee, director of social impact for the One Star Foundation, the agency that monitors the use of federal funds in Texas. 'Churches were doing that kind of thing anyway, so Bush said, 'Why not help them?''
That's the precise point that Davis finds alarming.
'Social welfare is the job of the church,' Davis said. 'The church's job is to take care of your fellow man; you help the needy and render aid to those who need it. But when the government starts paying for it, whose job is it?'
Davis said this crossing of the church-state boundary could lead to a lack of faith.
'It's happened in Europe, in France, for instance,' Davis said. 'People don't go to church anymore because the government got too involved.'
To explain, Davis said that as churches accept government dollars, their constituents become less inclined to tithe.
'And when that happens, the whole system unravels,' Davis said. 'People think that since the government is taking care of the community through the church, then it's no longer the church doing God's work.'
Bugbee understands the professor's view but disagrees.
'I don't see any real connection between federal funds and loss of faith,' Bugbee said. 'People believe or they don't.'
Bugbee also said the faith-based funding is a positive American asset.
'All this legislation does is make government money available to all non-profit groups, regardless of religious nature,' Bugbee said. 'Think about it this way, there's only one pile of money, but there's lots of groups out there that do good works for people. Is it fair to say, 'No you can't have it because you're affiliated with a church.' Of course not. So Bush created the faith-based program to give all groups the right to apply for government aid.'
It sounds like a good idea, but research shows that Davis' arguments aren't without merit.
A November 2006 report of the Boston Globe said 98.3 percent of all Bush administration grants to faith-based groups since 2001 went to Christian organizations.
'That's not how it should have been,' Davis said. 'It should have been fair and equal among all religious groups.'
At the Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., Obama said this problem will be rectified under his revised Partnerships program. From scientologists to Muslims, Obama said all religious groups will have equal consideration and equal approval for federal grants.
Another criticism of Bush's Initiatives program came from how churches hired facilitators for their federal programs.
'Since it was a job paid for with government dollars, then anyone should have been welcome to apply,' Davis said. 'The churches should have been under the same guidelines as any other type of government employment but they weren't. If a Baptist church, wanted a Baptist facilitator, then it could hire based on that.'
Under Obama's program, the equal opportunity employment mandate will be enforced.
Like Bush's did, Obama's program will require that no proselytizing or evangelizing take place during the programs financed with government dollars.
'At the drug rehab or women's shelter or like program, Bibles are not supposed to be passed out,' Bugbee said. 'It's not an opportunity to advertise God and Jesus.'
That has to be done with the church's money, Bugbee said.
'But that line can be blurry,' Davis said. 'Who's to say where the church's money ends and the government's money starts?'
Bugbee agrees that it can be difficult to monitor every single dollar granted to a church.
'We can't be everywhere at once,' Bugbee said. 'But that's why One Star Foundation exists - to make sure the rules are followed.'
Bugbee said that in Texas no major scandal related to the faith-based grants has been recorded.
And as of yet, no church or faith-based organization in the Central Texas region has been the recipient of such a grant. Bugbee said most of Texas's recipients are in Houston and San Antonio.
Area churches wanting more information about Obama's faith-based Partnerships can contact the One Star Foundation at 512-287-2000.

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