President Bush's faith-based initiative, launched as a centerpiece of his administration's domestic agenda, recently passed its five-year anniversary without notice.
President Bush is congratulated by members of Congress while leaving the House chamber after his State of the Union address Jan. 31. (WhiteHouse.gov)
A few weeks after he took office in January 2001, the president established the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Organizations, aimed at mobilizing "armies of compassion" by relaxing rules and regulations making it easier for faith-based organizations to receive federal funds.
The goal was to reduce the size of government by shifting responsibilities for a variety of services--such as after-school programs, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation and abstinence education programs--from federal agencies to faith-based providers.
From the outset the administration argued the intent was to level the playing field, claiming religious groups were historically discriminated against in applying for and receiving government funds. Bush has long contended that faith-based organizations, because of their religious component, are more effective than secular agencies in providing some services.
Aside from anecdotes, however, such as the private sector outperforming the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, there is little hard evidence to show that taxpayers' money is being well spent.
Government agencies handing out millions of dollars would normally have to give an account to Congress about how those funds were used, Bill Berkowitz wrote for Media Transparency, a Web site that monitors conservative groups. Yet the president has yet to document results that have been achieved.
The passage of five years also hasn't diminished concerns for critics who view the initiative as using tax dollars to promote religion.
Government has long contracted with faith-based providers, such as the $3.2 billion Catholic Charities USA and United Jewish Communities, to provide services, but safeguards were in place to ensure public funds were not used to proselytize. Religious entities formerly had to create separate entities to deal with public funds.
Now churches can qualify for funds directly, raising concerns both about people in need being forced to tolerate efforts to proselytize in order to receive aid and about houses of worship growing dependent on public funding and becoming subject to government regulations.
While rules attached to the money say it cannot be used for evangelizing, little monitoring is in place to make sure that recipients play by the rules. Pat Robertson's international charity Operation Blessing receives $14.4 million of its total $243 million in annual revenues from the government, and many of its recipients are churches.
A few charities receiving public funds have abused their mission by proselytizing, columnist William Fisher observed. For example, some distributed Christian Bibles and Jesus T-shirts to tsunami survivors in predominantly Muslim countries, and others received grants to conduct overtly evangelistic programs for prison inmates in the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services suspended a grant of more than $1 million to a program that promotes sexual abstinence, after the ACLU sued it for urging teenagers to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and selling silver rings to symbolize pledges to avoid sex until marriage that were inscribed with a verse from the New Testament.
The Chicago Tribune reported a story about a county court judge in Michigan giving a 23-year-old construction worker pleading guilty to marijuana possession a choice to agree to live for a year at a faith-based residential center or go to jail. The inmate chose Inner City Christian Outreach, which is run by the Pentecostal Church, where he was allegedly told his Roman Catholic faith was "witchcraft" and was not allowed to see his priest or use rosary beads to pray.
Some religious charities have taken money for reproductive health programs, counseling abstinence-only birth control and not advising women of the full range of options for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
The biggest stumbling block so far, however, is the provision that allows faith-based ministries to discriminate in employment. A Baptist organization, for example, can refuse to hire non-Christians or Catholics, and yet receive support that is funded by all taxpayers.
That is the reason Bush has never succeeded in getting the faith-based initiative through Congress, but has instead implemented it through executive orders.
While the religious right has strongly supported the president's faith-based initiative, some have recently questioned his commitment to the program.
A recent study by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy found that faith-based organizations received 12.8 percent of grants awarded by nine federal agencies in 2004, a higher percentage than before, but a decline in the total amount of funding they receive. The White House criticized methodology in the study, saying it put Bush's program in a bad light.
The president's 2007 budget proposes $323 million for faith-based services, a 36 percent increase in the amount approved in fiscal year 2006.
Jim Towey, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the president doesn't consider religion a litmus test in awarding government contract, but is interested only in effectiveness.
"From my standpoint, the initiative has never been about religion, but about results and about funding the best provider, whomever it is," Towey said in a recent press conference. "Is there a sense that there's more competition for these dollars? You bet. There is a greater level of competition, and I guess that does threaten the status quo. But at a time when budget resources are tight because of the war on terror and other pressures, you need to have competition. The poor deserve it."
The administration has also begun taking its faith-based message to America's heartland with a series of regional conferences and targeted workshops to introduce government programs to groups that don't have a history of applying for government funds, or have tried to apply but were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile the initiative is taking roots in the states, where tens of billions of federal dollars are administered. Thirty-one governors have opened faith-based and community-initiatives offices.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.