Study - Few states have embraced federal faith-based initiative

Thursday, November 13, 2003

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Less than half the states have followed the federal government's lead in recent years of encouraging religious groups to compete for government money, a new study says.

Part of the reason: many states already maintain long-standing partnerships with religious organizations, according to the study scheduled for official release Thursday by the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.

The study also found only eight states passed legislation to incorporate "charitable choice" language into state law since 1996. Charitable choice, part of an overhaul of welfare law under the Clinton administration, was meant to open government programs to religious groups not traditionally eligible for funding to fight poverty and other social ills.

States may not feel the urgency to increase participation of faith-based groups because at least half already have long-standing relationships with such organizations, the study found. The majority contract with groups such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services -- as opposed to groups directly tied to a congregation.

"While the spotlight on the faith-based initiative has been very bright in Washington, it tends to get much dimmer once you get outside the Beltway," said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute.

President Bush has pushed hard to let religious groups compete for government money, so long as their services are available to anybody in need. Opponents fear the government will wind up paying for religion.

When his initiative stalled in Congress, Bush sidestepped lawmakers with executive orders and regulations to give religious organizations equal footing with nonsectarian ones in competing for federal contracts.

Jim Towey, who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the study's conclusions represent "the lay of the land" when Bush took office. Towey said he has seen an "explosion" of interest from states on the faith-based initiative in the past six months.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he was "slightly surprised at the number of states that are already engaged in what I consider unconstitutional activity."


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