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    A Times Editorial

    Misgivings among the faithful

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

    The debate over President Bush's plan to channel federal funds into faith-based charities is not breaking the way the White House figured. As expected, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union were quick to denounce the plan as a major breach in the wall of church-state separation. What may have caught the White House by surprise, however, is the criticism from some conservative Christian leaders who are expressing serious reservations about the initiative.

    The Rev. Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition, recently said on his 700 Club television program: "I hate to find myself on the side of the Anti-Defamation League and others, but this . . . gets to be a real problem." Robertson fears unintended consequences for churches and the government. "What seems to be such a great initiative can rise up and bite the organizations and the federal government," he said.

    Of particular concern to Robertson is the president's promise that the program will not discriminate against different religions. The religious broadcaster warned that the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and other non-mainstream groups (which he compares to cults) could become beneficiaries.

    While not opposing the Bush initiative outright, a number of Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish groups are raising their own questions. Some are concerned that any partnership between government and religious charities will invite government meddling.

    The White House has tried to reassure the skeptics on the left and the right. To ease the concerns of liberal critics, it promises safeguards against violations of church-state separation. At the same time, the administration is telling religious conservatives the government will not interfere with the mission or message of its faith-based partners. Bush said he is interested only in what works. However, the problem could turn out to be that what works is not constitutional and that what's constitutional doesn't work.

    Bush rightly recognizes that religious institutions are a vital source of charitable work. Churches, synagogues and mosques often offer the kind of help -- such as feeding the homeless and working with prison inmates -- that other social service agencies eschew.

    There is also no doubt that some kinds of personal problems, such as addictions, are often successfully overcome in programs in which the development of a person's spiritual side is an essential element of the therapy.

    Some religious leaders are asking whether we really want our religious institutions relying on government support to do their good works. With government money come government strings, regulation and control. The deal struck could mean the religious community would be giving up independence in exchange for tax dollars, which is why some religious organizations will decline to participate.

    Parishioners who see federal dollars streaming into their church might feel less personally responsible for supporting its charitable programs. Tax money could end up replacing, not supplementing, funds collected from individual contributions and volunteer hours. Yet, part of the reason these faith-based programs work is that local people are invested in them.

    Church-state separation is a concern that cannot be easily dismissed as the rantings of secular groups such as the ACLU. What happens when the government underwrites a program for battered women infused with teachings of the Koran? Is that okay as long as there are similar local programs for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc.? Will federal money go to the Church of Scientology's drug treatment programs or the Nation of Islam's youth programs? It isn't far-fetched to expect this pot of money to generate new tensions among religious groups as they battle for federal dollars.

    Bush appears determined to press ahead with his faith-based initiative. It's a tricky issue for Democrats. After all, Al Gore, who lost last year's disputed presidential election to Bush, also endorsed the idea of a government partnership with faith-based charities.

    The debate is just beginning, and it's encouraging to see religious leaders taking the lead and asking the right questions.

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