White House Unveils New Effort to Implement Faith-Based Plan

White House Unveils New Effort to Implement Faith-Based Plan

WASHINGTON -- The White House announced Monday (Sept. 22) additional regulations and new proposed rules aimed at moving President Bush's faith-based initiative forward in the administration's attempt to increase access to federal funding for religious social service programs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules permitting faith-based organizations to compete for $8 billion in grants, with the exception of construction or rehabilitation of a "principal place of worship." The Department of Health and Human Services completed rules giving religious groups access to almost $20 billion in grants.

"It brings us a step closer to where there is a completely level playing field for faith-based groups so that compassion is unleashed through these organizations that for too long have been excluded from the public square and from consideration for federal grants," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

Towey spoke with reporters in a conference call Monday after representatives of several agencies of Bush's Cabinet met with the president to update him on their departments' work regarding faith-based groups.

The HUD regulations clarify what grants can and cannot fund, Towey said.

"The president does not support HUD funds for construction of places of worship," Towey said. But a hall on the property of a house of worship with four rooms, one used for a homeless program could get "prorated" assistance even if a 12-step program meets in another room at night.

Previously, HUD would have completely excluded such a building for funding if religious activities occurred at any time, he said.

George Washington Law School professor Ira Lupu, who commented on the rules before the complete language was made available, said the administration clarified the HUD regulation because of criticisms of the initial proposed changes. But Lupu, who has co-written analyses of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, said the rewritten rule likely is still legally questionable.

"The problem is how do you make sure that government money is not being diverted for religious purposes?" he said.

The finalized HHS rules implement "charitable choice" rules for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Community Services Block Grant program. Charitable choice laws, in effect since 1996, are a welfare reform provision that increased governmental funding of faith-based social service programs.

In addition, the White House announced the second year of awards in its Compassion Capital Fund -- HHS awarded $30.5 million in grants to 81 organizations for technical assistance and sub-grants to community and faith-based groups in 45 states. Twenty-one groups received $24 million in grants last year.

Among the proposed rules announced by the White House was a change in the Department of Justice policy dealing with governmental forfeiture of assets of $50,000 or less in value to community groups for social services. The policy has called for all but religious groups to use the property for specific purposes for five years. Under the new policy religious groups would no longer have to agree to never use the property for religious purposes.

Citing a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Lupu said he believes that proposal is "inconsistent with current constitutional doctrine."

Other proposals in the Labor and Veterans Affairs departments include vouchers for job training and protection of some religious hiring rights, an area that has prompted serious debate in the past.

Proposed regulations in the Departments of Justice and Education would prevent discrimination against beneficiaries, restating that government funds cannot be used to support "inherently religious" activities such as worship, proselytization and religious instruction.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the overall announcement by the White House "commits the administration to discriminatory hiring" and gives money to programs whose effectiveness in helping the poor has not been proven.

"It's another kind of piece of the overall sham that the faith-based initiative represents," he said.

© 2003 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. Used with permission.