Chicago (CNSNews.com) - The conventional criticism of President George Bush's faith-based charities initiative is that it will violate the so-called "separation of church and state" notion that many liberals hold sacrosanct.
But Rev. Michael Boland, administrator of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said his organization has been collaborating with the federal government for a long time on projects to help the homeless and feed starving senior citizens.
"When the government works with a good religious organization, everybody wins," said Boland. "The federal government has been working with religious groups for a long time, despite what some of the extreme groups have been saying. That's because religious groups have been helping those in need for a lot longer than the government has."
This relationship between Boland's group and the federal government is in line with the US Constitution, which does not call for a separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the Constitution does state, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," sometimes referred to as the 'establishment clause.'
Last week, Boland, and other Roman Catholic leaders from across the U.S., including Cardinal Edward Egan of New York City, conferred with Bush, as well as the secretaries of labor, education and housing, for a four-hour White House dialog on the president's faith-based charities.
During that meeting, Bush offered a broad-brush vision for the program. But one of the most remarkable things about the meeting, Roland said, was the president's understanding of how government regulations must be eased in order to make it simpler for charities to work on social programs.
"President Bush has a remarkable grasp of these issues," said Roland. "He discussed faith-based programs that he knows of in Los Angeles and New Orleans and Chicago. He talked for four hours, without notes. And he talked emphatically about how the administration wants to remove barriers that religious organizations feel when they're working with the government. He wants to get rid of the rules that are encumbrances to what we do."
There has been progress on that front over the past five years. Welfare reform legislation passed by Congress in 1996 allowed faith-based charities to participate in federal social programs. Two years later, a measure called the Charitable Choice program let churches and other religious groups compete for federal block grants.
Those measures have helped, but only to a point. "The legislation has not been accepted that well," said Boland.
Still, there are many successful examples of the federal government working with religious groups. Catholic Charities here, for example, has built 12 homes for low-income seniors and homeless. Four more are under construction.
Funding for the program has come through grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The funds have helped us transform communities," said Boland. "We've provided shelter and we've provided Meals on Wheels to shut-ins, but working with the federal government has got to be made easier."
Though Catholic Charities is faith-based, it does not force its religious doctrine on the people it helps. Approximately 90 percent of the half-million children, families and seniors in Cook County and suburban Lake County who receive help each year are not of the Catholic faith, and no preaching goes on directly through the program.
"One resident at one of the homes we run was asked by a television reporter if she was a Catholic," recalled Boland. "She said that nobody had ever asked her that question before. That's because we don't try to convert people there. That would not be fair to them."
The meeting with the Catholic religious leaders was not only a follow-up to President Bush's unveiling of his faith-based initiative plan. It was also in line with the themes touched on in his inaugural address on January 20, 2001.
"Some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer," Bush said in his inaugural. "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws."
Boland noted that many have criticized Bush's program as lacking in specifics. But he says that it is still in the conceptual stage and needs time to develop.
"We have to support President Bush -- it will help people help themselves," said Boland. "If his program is done right, it could be a wonderful thing. President Bush noted that the government does not love. Religions do."
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