White House Doled Out More Than $1 Billion in ‘Faith Based’ Funds

In New Haven, Conn., AIDS counselors don’t hesitate to stop and pray anytime someone needs a boost. In Charleston, S.C., Crisis Ministries provides shelter and meals for the homeless and the hungry.

Both are on a White House list of “faith-based organizations” that together received more than $1 billion in federal grants in 2003. But when it comes to religion, the groups’ philosophies are quite different.

The Connecticut AIDS program doesn’t hesitate to incorporate religion into its program. But in South Carolina, Crisis Ministries doesn’t consider itself religious at all.

“Someone has obviously designated us a faith-based organization, but we don’t recognize ourselves as that,” said Stacey Denaux, executive director of Crisis Ministries.

Hers was one of many groups with entirely secular missions that were surprised to find their names on a list of faith-based groups provided to The Associated Press by the White House.

Other grant recipients are overtly religious, offering social service programs that the government may have deemed too religious to receive money before President Bush launched his “faith-based initiative.”

Visitors to TMM Family Services in Tucson, Ariz., which received $25,000 for housing counseling, are greeted by a picture of Jesus and quotes from the Bible.

“We believe that people being connected to the faith of their choice is important to them having a productive life,” said Don Strauch, an ordained minister and executive director of the group, which offers a variety of social services. “Just because we take government money doesn’t mean we back down on that philosophy.”

All told, religious-oriented groups were awarded $1.17 billion in 2003. That is about 8 percent of the $14.5 billion spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments. White House officials expect the total to grow.

The list of 2003 grant recipients provided to AP is the first detailed tally of the dollars behind this “faith-based initiative.”

Elected with strong support of religious conservatives, Bush came to office promising to open government’s checkbook to religious groups that provide social services. Often, Bush says, religious groups do a better job serving the poor than do government agencies.

Civil libertarians fear the government will wind up paying for worship, eroding the constitutional separation between church and state.

Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the administration has been clear that “government money is not to fund religious activities.”

“This is a culture change in the way government provides social services,” he said. “There’s always going to be a very delicate balance.”

In the past, government has refrained from giving money directly to religious groups, but it has required they set up independent, secular organizations to get taxpayer dollars. Bush tried to get Congress to change that. Congress refused, so he unilaterally put many of his changes into effect.

The White House also hosted several conferences explaining the relaxed rules and put out a book listing programs participants might want to apply for.

“We feel much more at ease,” said Louis Wonderly, past president of the Luther House Foundation of Southern Chester County, Pa. The group was awarded $10.3 million to build an apartment building for low-income older people.

“We won’t have to say, `Oh my goodness, is it terrible to have a cross hanging on a bulletin board?'” Wonderly said.

It is unclear how much religion is too much religion when government money is involved. The courts have issued mixed rulings. The administration says a group getting federal money can sponsor worship and other religious activities so long as they are separated by time and location from activities paid by the government.

In New Haven, Conn., Women in Search of Health Education and Spirituality got almost $500,000 to help AIDS patients who are just out of drug treatment. Each session begins with a daily affirmation, where each participant chooses something to read, religious or secular.

The program’s director, Patricia Lafayette, said a spiritual connection is emphasized. “Generally, that’s the key to recovery,” she said.

“We pray anytime someone asks,” added Joyce Poole, director of the AIDS Interfaith Network, which sponsors the program. “Some clients walk in and say they need a prayer and a hug and we stop whatever we’re doing for them.”

At the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., Life Connections got more than $50,000 to help inmates who are about to be freed and who volunteer to participate and pick one of six religious programs to follow. Activities include a two-week spiritual retreat and six weeks of intense religious study.

White House aides declined to say whether those particular programs were appropriate.

The grants on the White House list were not specifically targeted to religious organizations. Rather, the list includes all groups believed to be faith-based that won competitive federal grants open to all applicants.

Specifically, it includes recipients of competitive grants administered by five federal departments: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor and Justice. Not included are the billions sent to the states for distribution.

An AP analysis of the $1.17 billion and nearly 150 interviews in 30 states with grant recipients found:

-Many are well-established, large social service providers that have received federal money for decades. More than 80 percent of recipients at HHS had received federal money before. At HUD, the figure was 93 percent.

-Two programs account for half of the $1.17 billion total: A HUD program known as Section 202 that builds housing for low-income poor people, and Head Start, a large preschool program for poor children. Both are dominated by longtime grant recipients able to handle large amounts of money – not the small church groups sometimes evoked by the White House.

-Many organizations insist they do not belong on a list of faith-based organizations, even though they may have religious roots. White House officials said the list included groups that had identified themselves as faith-based and groups that officials thought were religious, based on their names.

More common: groups with a religious perspective that steer clear of proselytization.

“We intentionally avoid references to God and his works in our educational material so that no one will feel intimidated or avoid our services because they’re of a different religion,” said Sue Ortiz, a home ownership counselor at Inner City Christian Federation in Grand Rapids, Mich., which got $65,000 in 2003 and $150,000 in 2004.

But religion inspires their work, she said: “We do what we do because of God’s love.”

On the Net:

State-by-state lists of grant recipients available at: http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/files/specials/interactives/wdc/faithbased/index.html?SITEAP&SECTIONHOME

White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/