Stateline Story

More States Reach Out to Faith-Based Organizations

Riley, who created the office by executive order last June, is among a growing number of governors to step up efforts to help religious, nonprofit organizations secure federal grant money that's handed out by states.

Whitehurst-Feirick is founder of the interdenominational group Vision Ministries Inc., which aids 150 poor, sick and homeless people in the southeast corner of Alabama by providing food, clothing, spiritual guidance and help with substance abuse or transitional housing. "I always said that this ministry would bring people from the guttermost to the uttermost," she said. "We're doing it without the federal funding. How much more could we do with some funding?"

Alabama's faith-based office has hosted seminars to educate religious nonprofits about funding opportunities. With information she got from the state, Whitehurst-Feirick said she's going to apply for a grant for the first time from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

Twenty governors Democrat and Republican alike have established faith-based outreach offices. Their efforts echo those of President George W. Bush, who has strongly pushed for religious groups to have equal access to government funds and has established offices in several federal agencies. In 2003, $1.17 billion in grants from federal agencies were given to faith-based groups, according to an Associated Press tabulation that was confirmed by the White House.

Bush has used his administrative authority, through executive orders and rule changes, to reach beyond the initial scope of the "Charitable Choice" law that President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 as part of the welfare reform act. It allows state governments to direct federal money to religious groups. Before 1996, religious groups could compete for funds only if they set up separate secular, nonprofit entities.

For example, the White House ushered in a rule allowing federally funded faith-based groups to consider religion when employing staff, according to a report co-authored by Richard Nathan, a fellow with The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., who studies faith-based initiatives in the states. (The Roundtable is supported in part by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.)

The Bush administration also has aggressively lobbied governors to get involved. "This is a way to tell the governors that this is another way for them to get the most bang for their social service dollars," said Jeremy White, a special assistant in the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

States initially were slow to embrace the 1996 law for a number of reasons, including new bureaucratic challenges, concern about sparking controversy or lawsuits and questions about the initial regulations of the law.

However, social policy experts say there's been a recent uptick in interest at the state level. "Now that the president has been re-elected and has made such big efforts to promote this, more governments, particularly state governments, are starting to pick up on it," Rockefeller's Nathan said.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) created an office of faith-based initiatives in 2003 upon recommendation of a bipartisan legislative task force. The office partnered with four area nonprofit groups to secure a "Capital Compassion" grant from the federal government and is focusing on three policy areas: prison recidivism, helping children with incarcerated parents and encouraging healthy two-parent marriages, said Krista Sisterhen, director of the Ohio Governor's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

"We're not trying to shove religion down anybody's throat. We're not trying to direct money to religious organizations. Our end goal is helping the most vulnerable citizens in our state, and this is our strategy to do it," Sisterhen said.

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), a Southern Baptist preacher, created the Governor's Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives in March 2004. The office launched an informational Web site and is planning a statewide forum on faith-based initiatives in Spring 2005.

"State government is not capable of ministering to a person's body, mind and spirit. For that reason, Gov. Huckabee wants to do all he can to equip and enlist the faith sector in meeting the many needs of Arkansans," said Beth Garrison, special projects coordinator in the governor's office

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) plans to re-introduce an amendment to the state Constitution to allow faith-based social service providers to compete for state funds, a practice that currently is prohibited. The resolution would require a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate, and if passed, would go to voters on the November 2006 ballot.

About 37 states have similar provisions in their constitutions, some dating back to the 19th century, that prohibit government aid to religious schools or institutions, said Bob Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University. However, there is little enforcement of these amendments in most states. The issue has bubbled up in Georgia because the clause is one of the most stringent in the country and the state Supreme Court and attorney general have interpreted it strictly, according to Tuttle.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) issued an executive order last November charging a panel of religious advocates and state contractors to study ways to expand current faith-based efforts and issue a report by Feb. 1, according toThe Palm Beach Post.

And in Maryland, Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) set up an office of community initiatives last October and plans to set up a Web site and hold conferences to reach out to both religious and secular nonprofit service organizations.

There are critics who say these government offices are not simply leveling the playing field, but giving preference by funneling money to religious organizations, thus violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group based in Madison, Wis., filed a lawsuit last June against the Bush administration alleging that it gave preference to faith-based groups when doling out federal grants. The group's president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said it's "deeply troubling" that governors and state officials are promoting the efforts of religious groups. "When we elect somebody governor or president, we're not electing a clergy-in-chief. ... This has nothing to do with the secular purpose of being a governor," Gaylor said.

While there have been legal challenges, the issue in the states has been more about tight budgets than political ideology, social policy experts said. The budget shortfalls that states grappled with for the past three years caused them to constrict spending on social services and didn't leave disposable income to consider expanding contracting with faith-based organizations.

"Now (states) are starting to branch out again because they're in better budgetary circumstances," said Stanley Carlson-Theis, director of social policy at the Center for Public Justice, a nonprofit organization in Annapolis, Md., that supports Charitable Choice. "States can relax a little bit and start to think about innovation again."