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'Faith-based' groups got $1 bil from U.S. government in 2003

Jan 3, 2009

'Faith-based' groups got $1 bil from U.S. government in 2003

Federal funds given to mixed bag of charities in '03

Laura Meckler

Associated Press

Jan. 3, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The government gave more than $1 billion in 2003 to organizations it considers "faith-based," with some going to programs where prayer and spiritual guidance are central and some to organizations that do not consider themselves religious at all.

Many of these groups have entirely secular missions and some were surprised to find their names on a list of faith-based groups provided by the White House.

"Someone has obviously designated us a faith-based organization, but we don't recognize ourselves as that," said Stacey Denaux, executive director of Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Charleston, S.C.

Other recipients are religious, offering social services that the government may have deemed too religious to receive money before President Bush took office.

Visitors to TMM Family Services in Tucson, which received $25,000 for housing counseling, are greeted by a picture of Jesus and quotes from the Bible.

"We believe that people being connected to the faith of their choice is important to them having a productive life," said Don Strauch, an ordained minister and executive director of the group, which offers social services. "Just because we take government money doesn't mean we back down on that philosophy."

All told, faith-based groups were awarded $1.17 billion in 2003. That is about 8 percent of the $14.5 billion spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments.

The list of 2003 recipients provided is the first detailed tally of the dollars behind this "faith-based initiative."

Elected with strong support of religious conservatives, Bush came to office promising to open the U.S. checkbook to religious groups that provide social services. Often, Bush says, religious groups do a better job of serving the poor.

Civil libertarians fear the government will wind up paying for worship, eroding the constitutional separation of church and state.

Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Bush administration has been clear that "government money is not to fund religious activities."

In the past, the government has refrained from giving money directly to religious groups, requiring them to set up independent, secular organizations to get taxpayer dollars. Bush tried to get Congress to change that. Congress refused, so he unilaterally put many of his changes into effect.

It is unclear how much religion is too much religion when government money is involved. The courts have issued mixed rulings. The administration says a group getting federal money can sponsor religious activities as long as they are separate from activities paid by the government.

The grants on the White House list were not specifically targeted to religious organizations. Rather, the list includes all groups believed to be faith-based that won federal grants open to all applicants.

It includes recipients of grants administered by Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor and Justice.

An analysis of the $1.17 billion and nearly 150 interviews with grant recipients found:

• Many are social-service providers that have received federal money for decades.

• Two programs account for half of the $1.17 billion: One known as Section 202 that builds housing for low-income poor people, and Head Start, a preschool program for poor children.