Last summer, Greg Peters asked the principal of a Henrico County elementary school what his disadvantaged students needed most. "He said, 'It's underwear and toothbrushes,'" recalls Peters, executive director of United Methodist Family Services. So Peters sent his staff out with some money from the charity's reserve fund, and that's what they purchased. Such help quick, direct, with little red tape is a strength of religious-based groups like his, Peters says. And much of that help is sponsored by the federal government about $2 million in grants a year, in the case of the United Methodist charity. That's why Peters is a little surprised about the fuss over President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative. The crux of Bush's plan, unveiled last week, allows religious institutions to compete more directly for federal funds to further social-services work. "Many of these groups have been receiving public money for years already," Peters says. "I'm not sure if it's anything new." Still, he acknowledges, this plan would make that aid more direct than ever before. Currently, such aid has been given indirectly, through grants, partnerships and subcontracts with government agencies. In addition, the money has been available only for agencies that are legally detached from their sponsoring religious institutions, do no proselytizing and follow federal guidelines for hiring, firing and offering services. But Bush's proposal would relax those requirements. Ultimately, it would create a straighter path for money to flow from government-administered programs to charities run by churches, mosques and synagogues. While many local religious-based charities are inspired by the show of support, they are nervous about the government's involvement. "I think it depends on how they administer it," says Kitty Hardt, director of program operations at Commonwealth Catholic Charities. "We just know [Bush's] goal at this point, and not how it would be implemented." Take the easing of regulations, for example. Getting rid of unnecessary regulations is a welcome idea, Hardt says. But they shouldn't be relaxed to the point where substandard charities provide substandard services: "I would hate to see poor people driven to minimally regulated organizations." There's also the fear that government could end up relying on religious-based charities too much, says the Rev. Fletcher Lowe, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. "The concern is about whether government is saying by this action that it wants to get out of the social services and dump it on the churches and the synagogues," he says. Marsha Hurwitz, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, is waiting for the full story. "At this early stage, it is difficult to comment," Hurwitz says through a spokeswoman: "We will watch its development with interest and trust it will be sensitive to minority concerns, and to maintaining this nation's longstanding commitment to religious freedom and separation of church and state." Lowe is more pointed. "I affirm this effort," he says, "but I affirm it along with some calls for safeguards so that it doesn't bridge that gap between church and state." Say a church provides a counseling program for recovering drug addicts, Lowe explains. Most likely there's a spiritual dimension to the counseling. If that program is funded by the government, Lowe says, "then that raises a question as to whether this is a legitimate use of federal funds." The upside of Bush's proposal, according to Lowe, is that "it will provide funds to expand, or potentially expand, some programs that church agencies and congregations have in place that will help with the overall social health of the community." But that's no excuse for violating the separation of church and state, he contends: "It's been clear to some people that faith-based organizations can do things better, sometimes, than governmental agencies can partly because the religious commitment is there. That does not mean that you cross that line." Already, that line has been stepped on, according to some First Amendment groups, who cite the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. In that case, provisions were made that allowed religious-based groups to serve as government providers without hiding the spiritual character of their programs. Bush's plan as well as a bill before Virginia's General Assembly that affects state government expands on those provisions. It also fires up such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union. "Legally, what we're seeing designed here are programs that are intended to pass just under the radar of the courts," says Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. "I think it's the sort of thing that people should be watching very, very closely." He adds that the religious institutions themselves should be wary. "No matter what you do," Willis says, "government funds ultimately come with strings attached." That's the kind of talk that bothers Gerald Glenn, bishop of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church, who wants to see Bush's proposal turn into reality. "The only thing I'm worried about is the doomsayers out there that want to worry about the conflict with church and state," he says. "This is a bit of a gray area, it is, and yet I applaud Mr. Bush's efforts to recognize contributions that can be made by faith-based groups," Glenn continues. He adds that he would be firmly against using the money to proselytize. At least one aspect of Bush's plan seems to be passing muster in most camps: a $500 tax credit and charitable deduction for people who do not itemize on their tax returns. "I think that's a point of equality," Catholic Charities' Hardt says. "It's a long time coming and I really applaud him for doing that." Peters, of United Methodist Family Services, is hopeful that Bush's plan could change things for the better by giving faith-based charities more resources. "I think you'll see a lot of innovation," he says: "I think you'll see a lot of new programs come online. And I think you'll see a lot more creativity." Still, Peters wants to know more. "I think the potential is great," he says. "But is there a downside? Sometimes, they say, the devil is in the
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