WASHINGTON – Maryland is one of 38 states that have failed to reach out to churches and religious groups to help deliver social services, as was advocated by a 1996 federal law, according to a new report.
The Thursday report from the Congressional Empowerment Caucus and the Center for Public Justice said that while Maryland changed its law to permit contracting with faith-based organizations, it has not gone far enough.
Maryland administrators have shown only half-hearted interest in working with faith-based organizations, said one provider. The state has also tried to force religious groups to be secular in the delivery of state-funded services, which the report’s authors claim violates the “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
Maryland officials said Thursday they were “surprised” at the allegations.
“We work with a lot of organizations and are very instrumental in bringing faith-based organizations to the forefront of our social service activities in the state,” saaid Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman at the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“These findings do really come as a surprise. It’s shocking,” Jones said of the report.
But Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy at the Center for Public Justice, said Maryland has failed to protect the rights of the religious organizations with which it has contracted.
“Each state has to make sure that they spend their funds for social programs the way the Charitable Choice law requires them to,” said Carlson- Thies. “One of the features of the charitable law is that when a religious organization is appointed by the state to perform some service, the state cannot force it to be secular.
“For example, the church is free to ask any person they plan to recruit for a state program whether he or she is a Christian. That is the right of any religious institution,” he said. “The state does not support that. Their argument is that no organization should ask a person about their religious beliefs, as they are dealing with the money of the state.”
Some faith-based organizations argue that the state and religious groups should never work together, taking into account the complexities involved.
“A state and an FBO (faith-based organization) cannot work together for three primary reasons,” said Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee. “First of all, if a government funds something, they will regulate it. And a government regulating a church is a very bad idea.”
The second reason, said Rogers, is that by sending tax money to the church, the government is choosing a religion for the people. She also feels that by scrutinizing different religious groups for a particular contract, the government is bound to play politics with them.
Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of the People for the American Way, couldn’t agree more.
“Mixing religion and state is a very complex and serious issue,” he said. “I am not surprised that many of the states failed the `test.’ It just reflects the underlying problem with the whole concept of Charitable Choice. It is very tough for churches and the state to work in tandem.”
Denise Harper, assistant director at Payne Memorial Outreach Inc., thinks the state and churches should work together. But her Christian-based group’s experience with Maryland bureaucrats was disappointing, she said.
Harper said her organization got little support from state officials for a contract to train welfare recipients in Baltimore for jobs and job placements.
“Our job was to provide 80 hours of skilled training to a person that was selected by the state Department of Social Services. We were to get reimbursed for our services,” Harper said. “However, they soon stopped sending people to the organization as per the agreed schedule.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that we are a religious-based organization and hence look at spiritual security as well,” she said of the state’s disinterest.