Faith-Based Initiatives Should Be Revised, Some Say

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - As the Bush administration takes a second look at its plan to channel more government money to religious charities in the form of faith-based initiatives, some leading conservatives and social workers said the basic idea was sound and should be developed.

"It's not as though people are forced to participate," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which supports the initiative as a way religion-based organizations can make a positive contribution.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families, said ultimately it will be possible to develop government programs that can partner with successful faith-based initiatives.

"As usual in government, the devil is in the details," he said.

"The faith-based initiatives offer tremendous opportunity because it's obviously going to be hard to raise money," said Rev. Joseph McCloskey, a Jesuit who works with inner-city groups at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Community in Washington, D.C.

"That the initiative could be taken advantage of is what everybody worries about," he added. "If you already have an operation in place, then you're giving them more resources to work with, but if it's a case of putting another task on the church without maximizing the outreach potential that the church has, then I'd be reluctant to support it. My opinion is wait and see."

The extent of criticism by allies of the faith-based idea appears to have taken the Bush administration by surprise.

Conservatives worried that if government provided funding to thousands of institutions it would have the right to demand that those institutions give up their unique religious activities. Then not only their effectiveness, but their reason for being would be lost, they said.

On the left, criticism focused on concerns that awarding grants to religious groups would illegally bond church and state, and tax money would be used to finance programs allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring practices.

But even as the initiative generated at times bitter debate among Conservatives, most agreed that the basic idea was worth developing.

Kenneth Connor, president of the Family Research Council, said that to scuttle faith-based initiatives out of fear that taxpayer money would fall into the hands of religious groups with a record of offensive pronouncements would be the equivalent of a teacher punishing the whole class for the crime of an individual offender.

"The truth is, our nation has long been served by an array of faith-based programs, and these services to neighbor have typically enjoyed a comfortable, supportive relationship with government," Connor said in an op-ed.

Connor criticized fellow conservative Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, for Robertson's attack on faith-based initiatives.

Robertson complained that "the same government grants given to Catholics, Protestants and Jews must also be given to the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology, or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church - no matter that some may use brainwashing techniques, or that the founder of one claims to be the messiah and another that he was Buddha reincarnated.

"Under the proposed faith-based initiative, all must receive taxpayer funds if they provide 'effective' service to the poor. In my mind, this creates an intolerable situation," Robertson said in a commentary Monday.

In another clash, Omar Ahmad, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, demanded an apology for what it called anti-Muslim bigotry by Christian evangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell.

In remarks about the faith-based initiative published on the Internet, Falwell said: "I think the Moslem faith teaches hate. I think there's clear evidence the [Islamic] religion, wherever it has majority control - and I can name a dozen countries - doesn't even allow people of other faiths to express themselves or evangelize or to exist in their presence," and should be disqualified from funds.

Ahmad said Muslims in America provide free medical care, housing for the homeless and the abused, rehabilitation for prison inmates, as well as social services and relief for victims of natural disasters.

"Your destructive rhetoric could lead to discrimination and even physical attacks against Muslims in North America," Ahmad said in a letter to Falwell.

Don Eberly, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told reporters the Bush administration was postponing its initiative.

"We're not ready to send our bill up," he said.