Faith-based initiative draws Jewish fans, foes


WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (JTA) – A Jewish drug addict needs treatment but the only program available is one run by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, so he is forced to accept Allah before he can receive counseling help.

A Jewish homeless family goes to a church-run shelter but there are no Jewish social workers to talk to and they must attend a Christian prayer session in order to receive services.

Could these scenarios happen?

Some Jewish activists envision such horror stories as they take stock of President Bush’s new initiative to increase the partnership between the federal government and religious institutions in delivering social services.

But while some fear that the Bush administration is setting down a dangerous path that will erode the separation of church and state, others, primarily in the Orthodox community, want faith-based institutions to play a greater role in providing social services, as long as minority religions are protected.

Bush’s initiative, launched this week, to help fund social service programming run by faith-based groups marks a potentially dramatic shift in the way federal money will be used to help people in need.

The initiative has sparked a national debate about whether religious institutions that do charitable work should receive government funding.

In the Jewish community, the debate about church-state separation is accompanied by another significant issue: how such a program will affect the social service landscape that has been a hallmark of Jewish communal work.

Government funding for religious-based organizations to provide charitable services is not new.

For decades, local, state and federal money have been going to Jewish organizations, most notably the Jewish federation system, to run such programs as nursing homes, drug treatment programs, family counseling and services for the homeless.

But, the Jewish federations say, there is a difference between their services and ones that might be run by a synagogue or church.

Federations take great care to follow guidelines that ensure quality control and ensure that safeguards are in place so that there is no blurring of church-state separation, no religious coercion and they have the ability to deliver services in a non-religious fashion.

There is concern whether the same safeguards would apply to religious institutions charged with delivering the same services under Bush’s plan.

Since the introduction of what is known as charitable choice in 1996, religious institutions have been able to bid for government contracts to provide services to welfare recipients.

Over the past several years charitable choice supporters have attempted to incrementally expand the approach adopted by welfare programs to other social services through different pieces of legislation.

Now Bush has begun to make good on his campaign promise to increase the role of faith-based organizations in social service programming.

Signing an executive order Monday, Bush established a new federal office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as well as centers in five federal agencies to address how the government can fund religious institutions.

University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio was tapped to head up the new office.

Stephen Goldsmith, the Jewish former mayor of Indianapolis, was widely expected to assume that position but instead will address the issue of faith and community group involvement in a broader sense.

Goldsmith will serve on the board of the Corporation for National Service, a federal agency that oversees domestic volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps, and serve in an advisory capacity to the new office.

Before signing the executive order Bush met with some Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives.

Jewish community participants included Harvey Blitz, the president of the Orthodox Union; Cheryl Halpern, the national chairwoman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who directs the Gateway Rehab Center in Pittsburgh.

Bush unveiled an outline of his plan Tuesday and sent the proposal to Congress.

But with details of the plan still sketchy, community leaders are wondering how this action might affect their work.

National Jewish organizations focused on church-state separation and local federations already involved in social service delivery share several concerns. Among the assurances they seek:

• Religious discrimination must be averted in the hiring and firing of people who will deliver the social services;

• The provision of secular alternatives to religiously provided services;

• The establishment of clear “firewalls” between government-funded services and the core religious activities of a religious organization.

These safeguards, say critics, are not just for the sake of legal argument, but are needed to ensure the religious liberties of participants and prevent proselytizing.

Even if these points are addressed, however, it is unclear how they would be enforced.

With government money going directly to religious institutions, there is fear that there will be “discrimination with the stamp of approval of the president,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the executive director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

Saperstein, who joined with clergy from other religions on Tuesday to voice concerns about the plan, also expressed fears that religious groups would be in the position of competing against each other.

Orthodox groups, who support the charitable choice initiative, agree there should be no proselytizing of participants in any program.

They believe, however, that religious institutions should continue to make their own decisions about who to hire to run programs.

Some synagogues might want to apply for the new funding so they will have more flexibility in how they run certain programs, according to Blitz of the Orthodox Union.

A synagogue child care program that accepts government funding now, for example, cannot include religious content in its programming, but that could change under the new plan.

For their part, local federations have been wary of the changes that appear destined to affect the social service delivery landscape.

There are some federations who are eyeing possible funds and wondering how they might be able to take advantage of the new money.

But most are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

“The big challenge for local communities is to figure out – since it is now a fait accompli that charitable choice is the law – do they stand on principle and not take the money because of what they have long believed, or do they say ‘We didn’t agree with this but the money is here now and let’s move toward getting it,’ ” said Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system that serves as the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social services agency.

UJC opposes charitable choice as a policy, saying it threatens the quality of social services because synagogues and churches will not be required to comply with the same regulations that social services agencies must follow.

Houses of worship are exempt from certain state laws, such as licensing requirements to provide counseling services.

If synagogues or churches were not required to hire social workers to provide such services, they could provide the service much more cheaply but there would be a question about the level of quality care, said UJC officials.

It is unclear how many synagogues and churches would try to take advantage of the new funding.

Some synagogues and churches will likely be concerned about government intervention.

Others will not be able to handle the bureaucratic problems that come with receiving government funding, said Randy Czarlinsky, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Houston.

In Houston, the Jewish community center uses government money to help run its Meals on Wheels program, and B’nai B’rith uses federal funding for its housing program.

Texas has more charitable choice laws on the books than other states, and according to Czarlinsky, the guidelines have not been misused so far.

Groups that oppose charitable choice should spend their efforts trying to ensure there are regulations in this new federal effort, he said.

“Instead of fighting it, make sure it’s regulated,” Czarlinsky said. “Get a seat at the table.”

Social service agencies are not opposed to collaborating more with synagogues and churches, which they often do for a variety of programs.

Collaboration works because while the local providers have good intentions, they often are not able to handle the work alone, some Jewish community officials said.

Local synagogues and churches do not have the right infrastructure to deal with large government-sponsored programs, according to Joel Carp, the senior vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

In Chicago, the federation worked with local churches on an emergency food and shelter program.

The churches provided tremendous help, but they could not do so for long because they did not have the proper resources, Carp said.

Carp predicts that Bush’s plan will encounter the same problems.

Local religious institutions will be attracted by the new funding, he said, but will discover they can’t sustain a full level of involvement.

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