Faith-Based Initiative Gets Mixed Reviews in Bush's Home State

By Anna Hanks | July 7, 2008 | 8:03 PM EDT

Austin ( - In the Texas capital city of Austin, where President George W. Bush worked for six years as governor, some faith-based charities express vigorous support for the White House plan to let groups like theirs compete for federal funding.

But some other faith-based charities are convinced Bush's plan is the wrong approach. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative would not fund social service organizations that insist on promoting religion as part of their programs.

At the same time, however, it would allow religious organizations to compete for federal dollars, as long as those organizations agreed to keep the programs religion-free.

"When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives," said President Bush in the January 29th speech unveiling the plan.

While some organizations welcome the prospect of new funding sources for charity work, others refuse to let their religious message be diluted by partial federal funding, and others embrace philosophical opposition to such programs as a result of their history with governments, creating an array of response to the Bush proposal almost as broad as the works these groups do.

Familiarity Breeds Support

One group looking forward to the proposed funding is an Austin charity that President Bush contributed to financially while governor of Texas.

Austin Area Inter-Religious Ministries is a consortium of 130 groups of faith, including Catholics, Muslims and Secular Humanists. Both President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were supporters of AAIM projects, said Susan Wills, executive director of AAIM.

"His wife was a huge supporter," said Wills, speaking about Laura Bush's involvement with AAIM projects and her volunteer work at the Austin Children's Shelter. Wills was Executive Director of the children's shelter before moving to AAIM.

AAIM has nearly 1,600 active volunteers taking part in numerous programs. Among these programs are: "Hands on Housing," where last year 600 volunteers repaired the homes of 43 families living in poverty, and helped 139 refugee families from 16 different countries resettle in Austin.

The chairman of the board of AAIM is Reverend James Mayfield, pastor of Austin's Tarrytown United Methodist Church. Mayfield was Bush's personal pastor while he attended the church as governor.

Bush unveiled two executive orders during his announcement speech; one that created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and another designed to clear the bureaucratic barriers in government agencies that were making it difficult for private groups to work with the government.

While details of the plan are still sketchy, essentially the plan means when religious groups, such as the Catholic Church or Buddhist monks, fund social-service programs such as soup kitchens or drug rehabilitation programs, they are not to be discriminated against in competing for federal funding, just because they are religious groups.

However, if these same soup kitchens and drug rehabilitation centers make attendance at religious activities a requirement for receiving these services, then their social service programs will not eligible for the new federal funding.

"We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them. As long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis," Bush said in the speech unveiling the program.

In line with Bush plan, AAIM's services are provided without religious overtones.

"If you say you want help, and you demonstrate a need, we are here for you," said Wills, addressing how the group responds to community needs.

"It seems we do fit the criteria," Wills said, about her plans to apply for the funding when and if it becomes available.

When Faith Trumps Funding

Another Austin group providing faith-based social services is Austin's Ministry of Challenge. The ministry is a residential drug-treatment program utilizing Christian principles to treat drug addiction in Austin's homeless population.

The Ministry of Challenge is located in the heart of Austin's disadvantaged and primarily black East Austin neighborhood. One of its biggest financial supporters is Riverbend Church, located in affluent West Austin.

Begun seven years ago by Reverend Tony L. Johnson, the group estimates it has treated more than 3,000 people since opening. The ministry's shelter has approximately 35 beds.

Not all of the 300 people who enter the ministry's doors each month stay for their intensive and heavily religious six-month rehabilitation program, and it is this sort of evangelical social outreach that is not expected to be included under Bush's proposal.

"We try and stick to the Bible and its principles," said Dwayne Sutton, explaining the foundations of the Ministry of Challenge program. Sutton is both the Home Director of the program and one of its graduates as well. The ministry's rehabilitation program consists of group prayer, Bible classes and Christian 12-step programs.

The religious aspects of the program are so interwoven into daily life that the shelter only provides two meals a day. Residents regularly skip either breakfast or lunch on the belief that fasting will bring them closer to God.

"God sees you sacrifice," said Sutton, explaining the decision to have residents skip meals. "Fasting breaks unbelief."
Although the services provided by the Ministry of Challenge are religioun-based and don't currently meet the proposed criteria for the new funding, there are no plans to make any changes that would make the ministry eligible for the new federal cash.

"We're staying away from money that restricts our faith," said Duane Black, Executive Director of Ministry of Challenge.

The Third Way: Thanks, But No Thanks

Other faith-based groups may differ from the Ministry of Challenge in their approach, making them eligible for inclusion in the Bush program in the process; but some hold a philosophical position that prohibits their acceptance of government funding.

Jewish Family Services is a group primarily providing counseling and support-group services to between 30 and 40 members of the Austin area each week. The group is part of a nationwide network of Jewish Family Services. Some 70 percent of their clients are Jews while the remaining 30 percent are non-Jews.

JFS currently provides its services without reference to religion. This means that as a faith-based group providing social services, it falls within the likely scope of the new guidelines. According to Mitch Sudolsky, Director of Jewish Family Services in Austin, providing services without religious overtones is part of the Jewish obligation to the community.

Sudolsky isn't sure if the Austin branch of JFS will apply for funds under the Bush initiative. "It alarms me as a vigorous supporter of the separation of church and state," he said.

The US Constitution is mute on the matter of separation of church and state, but the 1st Amendment to the Constitution does say "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

"Historically, Jews have been in favor of the separation of church and state because of what history has taught us," Sudolsky said, explaining the history of Jewish persecution at the hands of some governments.

"When government becomes allied with a majority religious group, a minority religious group can suffer," said Sudolsky.

While details of Bush's plan will be worked out in the near future, Duane Block of the Ministry of Challenge has a sobering thought about the new plan.

"When money becomes available, everyone will become faith-based," said Black. "We just trust God that the money goes where it needs to go," said Black.

See Related Story:
Catholic Group Applauds Faith-Based Charities Initiative (12 Feb. 2001)