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Bush's Welfare-for-Religion Push Expands

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Oct. 3 announced $30 million in funding to "help level the playing field for faith- and community- based organizations."
While offering no proof, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson claimed that "Faith- and community-based organizations are often the most effective groups in carrying out the purposes of HHS programs, yet many do not have the staff or expertise to successfully apply for our funding."
The $30 million in HHS "Compassion Capital Funds" was not officially authorized by Congress, where President Bush's "faith-based initiative" legislation has been stalled.
But lawmakers last year gave HHS $30 million to implement Bush's plan to help small community groups expand and learn how to apply for larger grants. The federal funds are technically earmarked to assist at-risk children, the homeless, drug addicts, prison programs, and welfare-to-work programs.
The "Compassion Capital Funds" divides $24.8 million among 21 intermediary organizations, "to provide technical assistance" to help such groups "access funding sources, operate and manage their programs, develop and train staff, expand the reach of programs into the community and replicate promising programs."
The department promised, "Technical assistance will be free to interested organizations."
The intermediary groups awarded funding will in turn issue "sub-awards" for start-up costs, operations or expansion of religious or community groups.
In addition to the $24 million in grants, HHS awarded a $2.2 million contract to Dare Mighty Things in Vienna, Va., "to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse for information related to technical assistance and training resources for faith- and community-based organizations."
It also awarded a $1.35 million contract to Branch Associates of Philadelphia, to evaluate "promising approaches" by faith-based and community groups.
Four grants totaling $850,000 were given to support research on how such groups provide social services, including to the University of Pennsylvania.
President Bush issued an executive order during his first month as president directing the five Cabinet Secretaries to inaugurate programs to fund faith-based groups. Bush has requested $100 million in the fiscal year 2003 HHS budget to "improve and expand funding to faith- and community- based organizations."
HHS "demonstration grants" went to a variety of "intermediaries," secular and religious. Among the religious recipients were:
Christian Community Health Fellowship, Ill., $1,128,33
Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Penn., $1,000,000
Northside Ministerial Alliance, Mich., $1,000,000
Operation Blessing International, Va., $500,000
The public grant to Operation Blessing was the most controversial, since it is a Virginia Beach charity started by TV evangelist Pat Robertson. The Christian Coalition founder opposed Bush's "faith-based" initiative in March on the 700 Club, saying federal funds would be "like a narcotic" to religious charities. However, his Operation Blessing, which takes in $66 million in voluntary contributions a year, was one of more than 500 groups applying for the federal grant.
Operation Blessing officials announced the $500,000 in tax monies will help "coordinate hunger programs" around the country.
According to London Observer columnist Gregory Palast (May 23, 1999), Robertson raised several million dollars through his TV station for Operation Blessing use in Africa, purchasing planes to fly medical supplies to a refugee camp in Goma, Congo (then Zaire).
"But investigative reporter Bill Sizemore of the Virginian Pilot discovered that over a six-month period--except for one medical flight--the planes were used to haul equipment for something called African Development Corporation, a diamond mining operation a long way from Goma. African Development is owned by Pat Robertson," Palast wrote.
Operation Blessing solicits products from individuals and groups, in turn distributing them to churches and Christian missionary organizations. In 2001, products reportedly included such necessities as Splenda, a no-calorie sweetener, pantyhose and candy. Operation Blessing also reportedly gave more than $2 million in 2001 to Christian Broadcasting Network, whose purpose is "to glorify God and his Son Jesus Christ."
The Florida-based National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, given $700,000 in tax dollars, describes itself on its website as working to create wealth and then "empower our people to steward that wealth for the purposes of the king," working not for "the world, . . . but rather THE WORD!!!!"
The Christian Community Health Fellowship identifies itself as "living out the gospel."
Programs to fund religion are also being developed by the departments of Justice, Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development, "to remove barriers for participation" by faith-based and community organizations.
Since the "Compassion Capital Funds" program is unauthorized, there are no rules to oversee issues relating to the separation of church and state.
Faith Works Case Proves Point
What happened on a small scale in Wisconsin is now happening on a national scale.
A case in point is Faith Works of Milwaukee, which did not open its doors until it received most of its funding from federal tax dollars. Faith Works had no track record, and its purpose was pervasively Christian, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation staff member.
Tommy Thompson, as Wisconsin governor, directed hundreds of thousands of discretionary federal funds to Faith Works, a Christian treatment program then run by Bobby Polito. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the state of Wisconsin and Gov. Thompson to challenge this funding of religion. Thompson was appointed HHS Secretary prior to the Foundation's legal victory in January, in which a federal court declared direct funding of Faith Works to be unconstitutional.
In the meantime, Thompson hired Faith Works' director Bobby Polito to become the HHS "faith czar" and administer its "Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."
Last summer, Polito announced that groups getting grants or subgrants could discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing workers. Polito also announced federal funds may go to a program in which prayer is a central component, so long as tax dollars are paying for secular elements of the program.
This rationale, also invoked by Polito in the Faith Works lawsuit, was explicitly rejected by the federal court in January, which said the pervasively sectarian mission of Faith Works could not be separated from its treatment of addicts. Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled that Faith Works engaged in federally funded "indoctrination" in violation of the First Amendment.
"The entire premise behind this funding needs to be challenged," said Gaylor. "There is no evidence that 'faith-based' groups are better at providing social services. And there is ample evidence of the problems caused when promoting religion, rather than helping needy people, is the real agenda."
Federal funds will be expended not just to religious groups, but to create religious agencies.
"Most of this federal funding will not directly benefit at-risk children, the homeless, etc. Much of it will simply fund groups to learn how to apply for further public funding," Gaylor added.
"Aside from First Amendment objections, the public needs to ask: Is this truly the most effective use federal of tax dollars to aid the needy? If a private group can't begin without federal funds, or isn't savvy enough to know how to apply for funding, why would we entrust it with public funds to help other people?"
Foundation staff member Dan Barker said:
"If I were running a faith-based charity, I would be embarrassed to admit that my god was failing to provide our needs to such a degree that we would have to beg the secular government for handouts."

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