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Bush's religious prescription

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


They say no one has the zeal of a convert, and our president is living proof. The former ne'er-do-well frat boy beat back his problem with alcohol by finding religion. Now Bush wants to put the nation on a prayer diet. For whatever ails you, Bush believes a spoonful of salvation is the answer. And while a prescription drug plan for seniors will have to wait, Bush is determined to get government to underwrite his religious prescription -- whether or not he has congressional approval.

Bush's request for congressional action on faith-based initiatives, which would allow religious entities to vie for federal social service dollars, has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The White House wants the freedom to hand out dough to groups which saturate their programs with prayer, and has no compunction about giving money to groups that turn away Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities for employment. Conscientious senators are refusing to go along.

But rather than fight these differences out on a legislative stage, Bush is using his executive authority to bypass Congress. A flurry of activity has been recently reported in the faith-based initiative offices of five Cabinet-level agencies as they cast about for creative ways to redirect millions of dollars in federal money into the coffers of church-affiliated groups.

One way they've found is to pass money through a intermediary organization which will then make sub-grants to religious groups with almost no holds barred on the religiousity of the program. The Compassion Capital Fund, a new $30-million grantmaking program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services uses this method of subterfuge. It was sold to Congress as money for technical assistance for faith-based and community social service organizations to train them on "best practices." In other words, how to run more efficiently and effectively. After passage, HHS changed the specifications to allow intermediaries to give sub-grants to support the operations of faith-based and community programs.

Over the next seven months, the administration plans to hold conferences around the country to instruct thousands of religious groups on how to successfully apply for these types of government funds.

At one of these outreach conferences put on by the Administration of Children and Families, part of HHS, the proceedings seemed more like a tent revival than a government function. The large gathering at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans in May was opened with two invocations and songs sung by ACF's own gospel choir.

In a break-out workshop, the featured speaker was Jackie Jaramillo of Faith Partners in Colorado Springs. Jaramillo's program pairs welfare families with church mentors who promise to pray for the family for a year. The program is bankrolled partly with federal funds from the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, a welfare-to-work block grant to the states. The church mentors are supposed to strategize and offer the family tangible help toward a more productive future. But, according to an audience member, Jaramillo said that much of the first six months is simply spent praying together.

The crowd was so excited by her presentation that a man in the assembly leapt to his feet and asked if he could lead the group in prayer. At least one audience member started speaking in tongues.

Here is your tax money at work.

Up until now, faith-based groups receiving government money were obliged to tend to people's needs religion-free. Clients at the Salvation Army's homeless shelters and drug treatment centers, for example, didn't have to worry about a side helping of religious indoctrination. But it appears those safeguards are being dismantled by the Bush administration.

The federal government's "faith-based" offices are dominated by people whom the spirit moves but the Constitution doesn't. Robert Polito, director of the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, came out of Faith Works of Milwaukee, a program he founded which was partially struck down as violating church-state separation. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the faith-based director, Steven Wagner, is planning to open grant programs to religious groups that employ only members of their own faith.

It appears we are entering a new era in Washington, one where the wall separating church and state has been razed to a pile of rubble and the IRS has become one giant collection plate.

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