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Church-state foes decry Bush plan to fund faith-based drug treatment

By The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON — President Bush has long preached of the power of prayer to aid drug addicts. Now he's putting dollars behind the rhetoric, asking Congress for $600 million for a new, three-year drug-treatment program that would welcome the participation of religious groups.

The proposal sparked conflict even before Bush touted it before Congress. Opponents fear government will pay for programs that replace professional counselors with prayer and Bible study.

"The president wants to fund untested, unproven programs that seek to pray away addiction," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "People with addiction problems need medical help, not Sunday school."

Bush and his supporters argue that faith can accomplish what secular programs cannot.

"Let us bring to all Americans who struggle with drug addiction this message of hope: The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you," Bush said in his State of the Union address.

Many federally funded programs combine medical models with religious faith, sometimes employing the 12-step program made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. But others are permeated with religion and eschew licensed counselors altogether.

One example is Teen Challenge, which uses Christian teachings to tackle drug addiction and encourages participants to convert to Christianity. "Christianity is a big part of our therapy," said John Castellani, the group's executive director, in 2001 during the debate over government funding for religious groups.

Opponents say funding Teen Challenge would amount to unconstitutional, taxpayer-funded conversion. But supporters hold it out as a model, and the White House invited Henry Lozano of Teen Challenge in California to sit in the first lady's box during last night's State of the Union address.

The drug-treatment proposal is the latest round in a two-year battle over the role of religion in delivering social services.

Bush first tried to pass sweeping legislation opening existing programs to churches, synagogues and other "faith-based organizations." When that failed, his administration began rewriting regulations to relax rules that have prevented government from funding religious groups.

Now, as he submits his budget plan for 2004, Bush is proposing a $200 million drug- treatment program specifically designed so that religious programs can qualify. Over three years, Bush said, the program would cost $600 million.

The new program would give people vouchers to seek drug treatment at the center of their choice, including religious programs. About 25 states, territories or Indian tribes would get grants of $5 million to $10 million per year. Employing vouchers makes it easier to constitutionally justify paying for a program that is infused with religion.

Still, civil libertarians who oppose the overall "faith-based initiative" and people who work in traditional drug-treatment programs worry about who might get money. They cite Victory Fellowship, a San Antonio, Texas-based program. Under then-Gov. Bush, Victory Fellowship and other religious drug programs won permission to skirt all state health and safety laws, including rules requiring licensed counselors. There is one hitch: Programs exempted from state laws can't get state money.

Victory Fellowship rehabilitates drug addicts and alcoholics through Christian teachings. Its leader, Pastor Freddie Garcia, has been quoted as saying, "Sin is the problem. Jesus Christ is the solution." And he has said traditional treatments don't work. "If you treat an addict with a drug-rehab program, all you have is a reformed junkie. If he meets Christ, he is transformed. He's a whole new person," he said.

A Garcia aide confirmed yesterday that these quotes represented his views.

It isn't clear whether the administration would allow funding for programs like Victory Fellowship, which do not use licensed counselors. But a regulation published last month seemed to lay the groundwork for this budget proposal. It made it clear that drug-treatment programs funded with vouchers do not have to separate the religious and secular elements of their programs.

Bush has many supporters on Capitol Hill.

"Faith is an integral part of recovery for most recovering people," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since 1981. "I've seen firsthand their positive treatment outcomes."

But others suspect Bush is simply out to appease religious conservatives by funding their pet programs.

"An exclusively religious approach may work for some people, but there's no evidence that it works," said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, which has tracked this issue for years. "Furthermore, Americans shouldn't be required to fund out of their own pocketbooks someone's religious practice."


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