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Federal agencies rewriting rules to boost religious charities

By The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON — Congress has yet to approve President Bush's faith-based initiative, but the administration is preparing to rewrite federal regulations and hand out millions of dollars for social services to religious groups.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, a new pot of money is aimed at helping small churches and other religious groups break into government grants. Officials say there's no problem using tax dollars for a program in which prayer is central, a point that Congress has refused to endorse.

The administration takes a broad view of the constitutional separation between church and state. If tax dollars are used for secular elements of the program — like a computer or a van — the rest can have a religious base, said Robert Polito, director of the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"We wouldn't be called the faith-based office if we weren't trying to see how we can partner with the faith community," he said. "We don't have to take the temperature of the religiosity of the program."

At the same time, the director of the White House faith-based office, Jim Towey, said no decisions have been made about the guidelines. No matter what, the government will not pay for prayer, he said.

"We are going to comply with federal law," Towey said yesterday. He allowed that there are gray areas about the law but added, "We are certainly going to be very zealous to make sure people aren't preaching on Uncle Sam's dollar."

Congressional action on Bush's effort is stalled over these questions: How much religion is too much when government money is involved? Can government pay for secular elements of a program that also includes religion? Should government-funded religious groups be able to consider religion in hiring?

The House approved a bill with most of what Bush wanted. In the Senate, however, supporters have failed to get a vote on even the watered-down version of the bill they introduced.

In the meantime, HHS is writing rules on its own, and other agencies are preparing to do the same.

"It would be great to have legislation, but there's a ton of stuff I can do without it," Polito said.

Critics are upset.

"The administration seems to say, 'We couldn't get the votes in Congress, so we're going to hijack every dollar we can and move it into faith-based ministries,' " said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are set to rewrite regulations governing eight grant programs that now bar religious groups if they are unwilling to hire people of all faiths. "That creates an impediment to faith-based organizations that's unnecessary," said Steven Wagner, director of HUD's "faith-based" office.

Education Department officials say a new federal law on after-school programs allows groups to use religion in their hiring decisions. That prompted protests from Democrats who say they specifically barred this discrimination under a carefully negotiated compromise.

"Unfortunately, the department's draft guidance interpretation ... effectively nullifies this compromise language," Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrats on the Senate and House education committees, wrote to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Initiatives also are advancing at the Justice and Labor departments. However, the effort is moving most dramatically at HHS, where there is new money to spend.

Last year, Congress allocated $30 million for technical assistance to help religious groups learn how to apply for government money.

HHS added a twist when it invited applications for the money. The groups that win large grants can pass unlimited amounts of them to small religious groups, which may use the money for startup costs and "operations" — in essence, running programs to address a wide range of social problems with no congressional guidance on the church vs. state issue.

Even the House bill, which included much of what Bush wanted, would require that programs separate their religious elements, so those who wish to participate in the secular part alone can do so.

HHS is making no such requirement, said Polito, who ran an urban ministry in New York before coming to the agency. Polito also set up Faith Works in Milwaukee, a program partly struck down by a federal court for failing to separate religious and secular parts of its programming.

Polito said that without congressional permission, HHS may not have the power to require a separation.

Further, Polito said, programs need not open their work force to people of all faiths and they need not set up separate corporations to handle the government money, although the department recommends it.

He said HHS plans to award 25 grants out of 562 applicants by the end of September.

It all makes for a "giant faith-based slush fund," Lynn said. The program was never supposed to be funding individual churches, he said. "I think that's a real scandal."


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