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White House continues to expand
scope of faith-based initiative

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Bush administration continues to expand its campaign to empower faith-based organizations to address societal ills, and some critics continue to attack the effort.

In recent weeks, the executive branch has taken the following steps to advance President Bush’s faith-based initiative:

— Released a booklet explaining the president’s position that faith-based organizations that receive federal funds should be able to take religious belief into account when hiring employees.

— Introduced resources to encourage religious groups to combat drug use among young people.

— Announced a pilot program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to foster involvement by faith-based groups in assisting lower-income, first-time homebuyers.

In presenting its position statement on hiring by religious organizations, the White House said current law is confusing and sometimes contradictory on the rights of federally funded, faith-based groups to hire according to their beliefs. The president will back changes in Congress to enable such organizations to incorporate faith into their employment decisions.

The White House deserves applause for its guidelines, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The reason that President Bush has been attracted to faith-based initiatives as an alternative to secular, government-based services is that they work in a way that merely secular programs don’t,” Land said. “To force faith-based programs to abandon hiring practices that will ensure the faith-based nature of the service out of some misguided misperception of separation of church and state would be to neutralize the very difference that makes faith-based initiatives so effective. The president understands this and has issued these excellent guidelines accordingly.”

A leading church-state organization and homosexual rights group criticized the guidebook.

“The Bush administration is trying to roll back civil rights protections, and all the sermonizing in the world can’t hide that fact…. [I]t still smells like government-sponsored bigotry,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a written statement.

A spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s leading homosexual rights organization, charged in a written release the guidelines “could actually cause a net increase in discrimination against gay Americans.”

The latest faith-based hiring statement builds on an executive order issued in December by Bush. After Congress failed to adopt his faith-based proposal, the president signed an order allowing organizations to enter into contracts with the federal government while maintaining their religious identity and being able to hire employees in accordance with their beliefs.

On July 10, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in conjunction with the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, unveiled new materials to assist religious bodies in youth drug prevention. The primary resource is a 100-page prevention guide for youth ministry leaders. It includes guidelines on dealing with peer pressure and on developing critical thinking skills regarding media messages.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders endorsed the effort.

“Faith plays an important role when it comes to teen marijuana prevention,” said John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, in a written release. “Faith communities can help influence a teen’s decision not to use marijuana and other drugs.”

The drug control office has established an Internet site, www.theantidrug.com/faith, on the prevention program.

AU’s Lynn faulted the program, calling it in a written statement “one very small part of a larger crusade that raises troubling constitutional concerns.”

The ERLC’s Land has said the faith-based initiative needs to have appropriate safeguards. These include a secular alternative to the religious social service, no government funds for religious exercises and voluntary religious activities for recipients of services.

Bush has said recipients of faith-based services should not be discriminated against or made to take part in religious acts to receive services. He also has said funds should not be used for “inherently” religious activities.

While saying constitutional safeguards are possible for the initiatives, Land has warned religious groups to be careful. “Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries,” Land said. “Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry and the hurting worth that exposure?”