Few recruits for the 'armies of compassion'

Faith-based groups prove slow to sign up for government-funded charity work.

With his faith-based initiative, President Bush aims to rally the "armies of compassion" to battle poverty and blight across America.

But the vast battalions of faith-inspired workers Mr. Bush envisions may turn out to be more like a few scattered squadrons - at least for now, anyway.

Even if the plan makes it through a thicket of opposition in Congress, recent experience shows that synagogues, churches, and mosques are often reluctant to embark on social-service crusades, including government-funded ones.

The average American congregation spends just 3 percent of its budget on activities outside its walls, according to one survey. Simply retaining members and conducting services is enough work for many groups. Others worry that with government funds will come government-imposed restrictions - such as on who they can hire and how much religion they can espouse.

Since the 1996 "Charitable Choice" law expanded Washington's efforts to fund faith-based social services, fewer-than-expected numbers have signed up. A study surveyed nine states and found just 84 new contracts between governments and faith-based groups had been signed since 1996.

"We've seen a real reluctance on the part of smaller religious entities to get involved," says Sheila Kennedy, a public-policy professor at Indiana University in Indianapolis who's researching responses to Charitable Choice. As one minister told her, "With the government's shekels come the government's shackles."

Before Bush's plan reaches faith-based groups, however, it has to clear Congress. In the Senate, the bill is marooned without a sponsor. The House has postponed action until after July 4 as backers reshape the bill. They've hinted at dropping several controversial provisions, including one that would let groups sue states for monetary damages if they didn't get a contract because of their "religious character."

But Bush and the bill's supporters are apparently standing firm on a provision that allows faith groups to require employees to adhere to "religious beliefs and practices." Civil rights defenders say that when a church's beliefs prohibit hiring of gays or women, for instance, this provision amounts to government-funded discrimination. Bush and others say it allows groups to hire within their faith.

Scaling back on bill

Overall, congressional criticism has caused a downsizing of the original plans. Now Bush and GOP backers hope to essentially apply the principles of Charitable Choice - which passed as part of the 1996 bill overhauling welfare - to new areas of social service, such as juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, crime control, housing, and hunger relief. Now, it applies to welfare-to-work, drug-prevention, and a few other programs.

There are signs of growing momentum, however. While last year's study showed that only 11 contracts had been signed with faith-based groups in California since 1996, the most-recent tally is 96, says Amy Sherman, who conducted the study for the Center for Public Justice, a pro-Charitable Choice group in Annapolis.

Overall, though, there's "a significant ignorance out there about these programs," she says.

One impact of Bush talking up his initiative - as he did to a national mayors group in Detroit Monday - may be to boost awareness, and thereby momentum.

Yet other barriers - some practical, some philosophical - may not fall so easily. A 1998 survey of congregations found that just 6 percent of churches have a staff member who devotes at least one-quarter of his or her time to social services. With the median congregation size being 75 regular participants, many churches don't feel they have the manpower to undertake new projects.

Another issue: Many of the contracts are "performance" based. In a job-placement program, that means the provider would get paid only when a client gets a job and keeps it for six months. Many churches don't want to invest the money up front and hope they'll be reimbursed.

Just how religious?

The biggest philosophical concern that keeps faith groups from getting involved appears to be concerns about strings attached to government money. Another is "mission creep" - fear of taking on too many programs.

But interviews with faith-based groups who've taken the government-funding plunge reveal that the biggest concern may be how "religious" they can be while providing services. "Most of them really want to know where the line is," says Ms. Sherman.

Finally, many states haven't stepped up. So far, just 14 states have set up "faith liaisons" to help religious groups obtain funds.

"A law can pass," says Stephen Lazarus of the Center for Public Justice, "but faith groups are unlikely to step up to the plate when they think not much has really changed or when they think they have to sell their souls to get the money."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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