Congress is not likely to enact legislation this session that would make it easier for faith-based organizations to compete for federal grants to provide social services, but the top domestic priority of the Bush administration has made significant strides in the past two years.
Bush, who guided similar programs into law as governor of Texas, wanted to unleash the “armies of compassion” to become more involved in providing government services in the community. He established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and similar offices at five major federal agencies: the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services (HHS), Education, Justice and Labor.
HHS recently awarded $24.8 million in grants to help faith- and community-based organizations compete for federal funds. It also awarded more than $855,000 to support research into the role of faith-based organizations in social services, $2.2 million to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse for technical assistance and training, and $1.35 million to evaluate “innovative practices and promising approaches” used by religious groups.
But Bush has not been able to get Congress to codify the changes that would expand the number of program funds that such organizations could compete for and make it easier for them to do so.
“It’s been rather mystifying whether the bill is going to go anywhere, especially the Senate bill,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, a former White House adviser on faith-based initiatives and now an acting program director at the Center for Public Justice. “The president has really wanted some legislation. … It’s partly symbolic.”
The House passed a comprehensive faith-based bill (HR 7) in July 2001. The bill would allow faith-based organizations to compete for federal funds in eight new program areas, including juvenile delinquency and justice, domestic violence and hunger relief.
The legislation would allow organizations to retain their religious character, but would prohibit proselytizing and using public funds for religious activities.
The Senate Finance Committee considered and aproved a watered-down version of the bill that focuses primarily on increasing private contributions to charities. It does not include the faith-based language, but nonetheless ran into more interference than the House bill.
The primary stumbling block in the Senate is Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who said he would propose amendments addressing religious discrimination to the Senate bill if it reaches the floor.
Religious organizations are exempt from laws that bar hiring discrimination based on religion. Many believe the exemption should be repealed for groups that run government-funded programs. To do otherwise is tantamount to government-supported discrimination, they argue.
With Reed unwavering on the issue, prospects are slim for action in the lame-duck session, and the 107th Congress is likely to adjourn without giving Bush a legislative victory.
“That doesn’t mean the administration isn’t making significant inroads on the faith-based strategy,” said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It’s very important that people who care about this focus as much on the regulatory side as the legislative side.”
Getting Around Obstacles
Bush opened the faith-based offices at the five major agencies to examine barriers to more participation from faith groups and to find ways to remove the obstacles. “We’re just beginning to find out what those are,” Rogers said.
Obstacles can be addressed as they are discovered, without any assistance from Congress, Carlson-Thies said. Possible changes could involve smaller and less complicated grant applications, providing technical assistance to small organizations and those new to the grant-making process, and eliminating long-held beliefs among federal workers that religious groups are not eligible for federal money.
“There are a lot of things that are in the discretionary realm of the administration,” Carlson-Thies said.
Opponents of the proposal were cautiously optimistic that Congress so far has been unable to pass either the broad House bill or the charity-driven Senate bill.
“The ‘so far’ is the important part,” said Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the faith-based initiative took so long to work its way through Congress and finally stalled. It was controversial from the beginning. It had critics from the left, right and center.”
The administration’s inability to convince Congress to pass the legislation may be one of the reasons Bush reorganized his staff. He recently replaced the faith-based directors at all five of the agencies, with each expected to report directly to the White House.
“The administration has been surprised by the political difficulty they’ve faced in getting this accomplished,” said Rogers, whose forum does not take a position on the initiative.
The White House faith-based team is new, as well. The first director, John DiIulio, resigned in August 2001, shortly after releasing a report on the barriers religious organizations face in competing for grants. His position remained vacant for about five months, until Bush friend Jim Towey took over in January.
It has also been reported that most of the staff at the White House faith-based office has been replaced. Administration officials rejected several requests to provide information about the reorganization.
Carlson-Thies said the personnel changes were not necessarily motivated by politics or Bush’s displeasure. The White House office, he said, was moving into a second phase of action: trying to correct the problems identified in the first phase. Carlson-Thies left the office in May.
“We were kind of going along with staffing that had been hired for different purposes,” Thies said. “We got things up and running, we talked to the press a lot and irritated a lot of people.”
Faith-based advocates will probably reintroduce “similar or worse legislation in the next Congress,” said Benen at Americans United.
Said one House Democratic aide, “This thing has more lives than 10 cats.”
Andrew D. Beadle can be reached at email@example.com.
There’s Money in Faith
Select agencies and organizations receiving grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help faith- and community-based organizations provide federally funded services:
• United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Boston – $2 million.
• JVA Consulting, Denver – $1 million.
• The National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, Chicago – $1.1 million.
• Operation Blessing International, Virginia Beach, Va. – $500,000.
• Nueva Esperanza, Philadelphia – $2.5 million.
• Institute for Youth Development, Sterling, Va. – $2.5 million.
• S.V.D.P. Management, San Diego – $673,041.
Organizations receiving HHS grants for research on the role and activities of
• Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va. – $236,633.
• Florida International University, Miami – $210,622.
• University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – $193,456.
• University of Maryland, College Park – $218,098.
Contact: HHS Center for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, www.hhs.gov/fbci.