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Faith-based summit reassures ERLC’s Land

WASHINGTON (BP)–The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and church-state agency left a Capitol Hill summit on faith-based initiatives with more assurance of the White House’s commitment to protecting religious liberty in the program and with a heightened recognition the controversial proposal could dramatically change social services in the United States.

More than 400 religious and faith-based ministry leaders attended the April 25 meeting hosted by Republican congressional leaders. The summit focused on the work of religious organizations in ministering to the needy and legislation proposed to expand federal government support of such faith-based efforts.

The legislation, which has taken different forms in the Senate and House of Representatives, is based on a proposal by President Bush to increase private giving to such charities and to increase government support of religious efforts to provide social services. Bush established a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, as well as centers in five federal departments, to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy.

Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he was “very reassured” to hear John DiIulio, head of the White House office, and Don Eberly and Don Willett, two other high-ranking officials in the office, “in separate venues at the summit reiterate that any direct grant money to faith-based ministries must have voluntary participation in the faith aspect of the help and must be separately funded, which is, of course, one of the things we think is necessary for it to pass constitutional muster.”

The summit was an “absolutely extraordinary event,” Land said. At a “time when many Americans have noted the racial division within our nation, you had hundreds of leaders of faith-based organizations from many different faith perspectives meeting together in solidarity that faith-based initiatives are absolutely critical to solving our nation’s problems,” he said. About half of the participants were African American and a significant number were Hispanic, Land said.

“As the day progressed, you could feel an almost palpable sense among the participants that they had the possibility of being empowered by their government through the faith-based initiatives program to provide real help to real people in the zip codes where they live without having to go to the liberal elites’ social welfare plantation to get the resources,” Land said. “Many people commented that this program has the potential to revolutionize both the delivery system and the effectiveness of social assistance in the United States.”

Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, also was present for the summit.

The House version of the faith-based proposal includes both the initiative to increase charitable giving and the expansion of federal funds for faith-based organizations. That bill has Reps. J.C. Watts, R.-Okla., and Tony Hall, D.-Ohio, as lead sponsors.

The Senate version, with Sens. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D.-Ct., as sponsors, so far consists of only the giving portion, which would allow non-itemizing taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions.

Opponents of the expansion of government support for religious ministries continued to express their displeasure. At a news conference the day before the summit, an open letter to Bush from more than 850 religious leaders opposing federal aid to faith-based entities was released.

The letter says the effort would “entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way.” It also opposes exempting ministries that receive government funds from employment laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.

The letter’s signers represent a wide variety of religious groups, including Dan Vestal, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; Stan Hastey, executive director of The Alliance of Baptists, and Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Organizations represented at the April 24 news conference opposing the initiative included Americans United for Separation of Church and State, The Interfaith Alliance, People for the American Way and the BJC.

Some conservative Christians, including the ERLC’s Land, also have expressed reservations about aspects of the faith-based plan.

Land has called for the program to be “voucherized” as much as possible, thereby alleviating concerns about government interference with faith-based groups if it directly funds them. In a voucher plan, the grant would go to a beneficiary who would choose what social-service agency, religious or secular, in which to use it.

Other safeguards the plan must have in order to be constitutional and successful, Land has said, are:

— There must always be a viable secular alternative.

— No religious group should be restricted or discriminated against in the distribution of funds.

— The ministry, not the government, should fund the religious aspects, including instruction and materials, of the program.

— Religious activity must be voluntary for recipients of services provided by a faith-based entity.

He also has recommended churches that choose to participate should establish a separate charity to operate the ministry.

The use of government funds by religious organizations was approved by Congress in its welfare reform measure of 1996, and the concept was expanded last year to allow drug addicts to use vouchers at faith-based treatment centers.