Faith-Based Initiative Gains Traction on Road; Its Ability to Solve Social Ills Needs More Research, Activists Say

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, The Washington Times

The Bush administration's faith-based initiative is catching fire among welfare researchers and in the public imagination, even as it remains a contentious legislative and legal issue inside the Beltway.

The president's push to allow religious groups to receive welfare grants is becoming better-quantified in states as it enters a third year, though how well the initiative will solve social problem requires tougher research, according to two recent forums here.

The White House and several federal agencies have promoted the idea at the grass-roots level for the past year, and many predict that enthusiasm for it will force new court rulings on church-state relations.

"The bully pulpit is working," said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, which started a $6 million, two-year assessment looking at all 50 states.

Mr. Bush's faith-based agenda is not really new, former White House official Stanley Carlson-Thies said Wednesday at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, held at the Brookings Institution. He said it began in the 1980s as a "renegotiation" of boundaries between government and religion.

"The initiative has always been a reinventing-government strategy," Mr. Carlson-Thies said.

Large faith-based groups long have worked with government welfare programs, but the new push is to bring in smaller groups.

Critics of the Bush initiative warn it was designed by Republicans to pay back religious conservatives and woo the black vote.

"This is the worst kind of politicizing of the church," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

To test the charitable-choice law, Americans United has sued Iowa for funding a prison ministry.

Rabbi David Saperstein, a lawyer and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, warned Thursday that the Bush plan was moving ahead in the Republican-led Congress without research on legal problems.

"The big debate is on employment discrimination," he said during an event sponsored by the Independent Sector and the Rockefeller Institute.

The faith-based agenda allows religious groups to hire fellow believers to provide welfare services. …