Leaps Of Faith

President George W. Bush.
If faith-based groups would like federal funds to pay for their social service programs such as fighting drug addiction, they'd better not count on a blank check from Washington.

That's the message from Stephen Goldsmith, the White House adviser who's the point man on President Bush's initiative to provide federal aid to faith-based charities that was announced last week.

On CBS News' Face The Nation on Sunday, Goldsmith - a former Indianapolis mayor - emphasized that under Mr. Bush's initiative, federal dollars can't be used for religion.

"These are not easy questions, and there are tough issues," he said. "But the government puts out money for domestic violence shelters, it puts out money for the homeless, it puts out money for health causes. People bid on the right to produce that."

Furthermore, Goldsmith said the president's initiative is not meant to require people seeking help to choose a religious charity over a secular one.

"If you are homeless and you don't want to be mixed up with a religious organization, you should have an option. Government should never force you through the front door of a religious organization," he said.

Still, Goldsmith added: "If, however, you have a choice of a faith-based organization and you, the individual, choose to go there and you have to pray before your lunch meal, you should be required to pray."

Also on Face, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warned that religious charities receiving federal funds may pose constitutional problems, no matter how many bureaucratic firewalls are put in place.

"You can't just turn off religion when the spigot opens and there's a federal dollar coming out, and then go back to being religious when it's a private dollar. That is not how these faith-based organizations, in fact, work," Lynn said.

Yet the Rev. Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told Face that the faith-based community should not be precluded from getting federal assistance to carry out secular programs, provided they follow the rules.

"If they preach hate, if they are in violence, if they're in something which is not a religion, and the Supreme Court has given tests for determining that, then (the government is) not going to fund them," said Colson, the one-time Watergate figure who turned to the ministry after that scandal. "We wouldn't fund them if they were secular groups."

Besides constitutional problems, Lynn argued that the initiative's competition between religious groups for federal funds might also have another unintended side effect.

"It could hurt volunteerism and it could hurt this whole ecumenical spirit of churches, synagogues, temples, mosques all working together in America's inner cities, because if you're going to use a competitive model, this is not the place to do it," e said. "This is not like you're buying hammers, you know, over at the Defense Department trying to get the lowest bidder."

Colson said just because taxpayers' money is available doesn't automatically mean that religious groups will seek it, noting that his organization has accepted state money in some instances - but turned it down in others.

"I think the faith-based community has to say, 'We're going to keep our independence, but if you want to buy our services ... then, of course, we should be able to compete on equal terms with anyone else.'" he said.

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