Ministering With Tax Money

Religious congregations that provide social services to the needy will need a Bible-thick guidebook if they choose to accept taxpayer support for their good works.

Rule upon rule will be required to avoid all the snares that might catch up both organized religion and the government.

That's why it is instructive to learn from the successes of "faith based" social programs already in place (see story on page 1). Many have walked the political and constitutional maze and come out still feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the broken hearted.

In fact, since 1996, federal taxpayer money has gone to many religious institutions providing welfare services under a program called "Charitable Choice."

But effective examples of such work haven't persuaded skeptics to stop trying to whittle back or block the Bush administration's "faith-based initiative" (lightly dubbed FBI) that seeks to expand such spending beyond welfare.

Critics, perhaps rightfully, see many potential problems. But they wrongly suggest throwing the whole idea out. The more courageous task would be to navigate carefully through all the issues of church/state separation and find answers for such questions as these:

* Can a faith-based social ministry that takes federal dollars or tax-deductible gifts of money ensure equal treatment of clients regardless of their religious beliefs?

* Will the government support such charitable social work solely on the quality of its effectiveness and not on the nature of the religion or its public acceptance?

* Can a denomination seek federal funding without distorting its primary purposes, such as helping members find purpose in charitable work?

A guide to the maze

A recently released booklet, "Keeping the Faith - The Promise of Cooperation, The Perils of Government Funding: A Guide for Houses of Worship" offers critical but helpful advice to religious leaders considering taking money from the government.

Put together by the Interfaith Alliance Foundation and a Baptist group, the booklet strongly suggests careful review before accepting any federal dollars, especially for those institutions which choose not to distinguish strictly religious activities from other social work.

Denominations should not, for instance, mix government money for secular social work with other accounts. They should not discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, and not make participation in religious activities conditional on receiving assistance.

More broadly, an organized religion should avoid taking taxpayer money without first having a program in place. It should be willing to accept certain government rules (including audits).

Religious leaders must also be careful not to grow overly dependent on money from taxpayers, lest they find themselves simply running a government-funded enterprise. Parishioners should not be tempted to reduce their charitable donations.

Denominations would need to avoid lobbying Congress for money, but not give up their historic role in challenging government. "When in the history of religion," asks the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, "have you known a prophet that would speak to power when the power paid the prophet's salary?"

Separation that works

Churches that choose to provide wholly secular social services created from religious motivation are probably in the best position to work with the Bush initiative.

But they should also consider nonfinancial ways for religion and government to work together. Why not have more cooperation between religion and government, such as a church-based program being on a list of voluntary choices when an individual comes to a government office seeking social services, for example?

Privately funded social ministries already can seek money from the likes of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has a separate religion grantmaking program that gave out some $26 million last year.

One idea for preventing problems is to have the states, rather than federal bureaucracy, administer such spending. The states are more attuned to local needs and concerns.

Caution is needed as this idea makes progress. But the desire of many people to help others out of religious conviction should not be easily put aside. Real social solutions require a change of heart, and those speaking from a heart of devotion are often best able to bring that about.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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