June 26, 2008

President Bush Calls 'Faith-Based' Grant Effort 'Bigger Than Politics'

President Bush said today he is confident that efforts to help religious charities get government grants — which he called “one of the most important initiatives of this Administration” —will continue after he leaves office next January.

Noting that 35 governors and more than 70 mayors, both Democratic and Republican, had established programs modeled after the federal “faith-based and community initiatives” program, he said that “the movement is bigger than politics or any political party.”

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Mr. Bush said his administration had “helped level the playing field” for religious charities, especially small ones, that had previously had trouble competing for federal money.

“We have trained thousands of federal employees to ensure that the government does not discriminate against faith-based organizations,” he said, “and we have ensured that these groups do not have to give up their religious character to receive taxpayer money.”

$2.2-Billion in 2007

The White House released data showing that religious charities won $2.2-billion — or 10.8 percent of a total of $20.4-billion — in competitive grants awarded to nonprofit groups by 11 federal agencies in fiscal year 2007. That percentage is down slightly from 2006, when such charities won 11.2 percent of almost $19.5-billion.

The Health and Human Services Department awarded the most money to religious charities in 2007, almost $818-million, while the Veterans Affairs Department awarded the highest percentage to such groups — 37.8 percent of almost $89-million. The Commerce Department awarded the lowest percentage of grants to religious charities, 1.7 percent of $291-million.

Religious groups in New York won the most dollars, almost $170-million, followed by Maryland, $156-million.

The report says agencies identified charities as “faith-based” by reviewing an optional survey given to grant applicants and other sources, such as Web sites. “Faith-inspired” social-service projects run by secular organizations, such as Amachi, a charity in Philadelphia that provides mentors to children of prisoners, were not counted.

Giving by Department

About 1,500 religious and nonprofit leaders attended the conference, which featured several cabinet secretaries and other government officials touting the successes of federal programs that award social-services grants, such as a Labor Department program to help ex-prisoners find jobs, a Housing and Urban Development program to help the homeless, and the global President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives — and satellite offices within federal agencies — do not award grant money themselves. But they promote giving to religious charities by removing red tape and other barriers.

As long as the money is used to provide needed services, and not used for religious activities, such charities should be able to compete equally for grant money without fear of violating the constitutional separation of church and state, the administration argues.

While the administration has faced several legal challenges to federal programs that funnel money to religious organizations, it won a big victory last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in Madison, Wis., did not have the legal right to challenge the activities of the federal “faith-based” offices because it was not directly harmed by them.

President Bush created the office by executive order shortly after he became president, so the question remains whether his successor will keep it. Jay Hein, director of the office, told reporters he was optimistic because both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Democratic and Republic nominees, have said positive things about the project.

Senator Obama told a televised forum in April that he would retain the office, but take steps to ensure that its mission is clear: “It’s not to simply build a particular faith community. The faith-based initiatives should be targeted specifically at the issue of poverty and how to lift people up.”

A spokesman for Senator McCain told Christianity Today in March the Arizona candidate wants religious groups to “have at least the same standing they have now” if he becomes president. (See The Chronicle’s Campaign 2008 site for details of these and other positions of the presidential candidates.)