WASHINGTON – Many religious groups and social service providers in Maryland said they welcome President Bush’s faith-based initiative, but some worry that church-based groups could end up shouldering too much of the burden.
“We’re already swimming in human need,” said the Rev. Lee Hudson, director of Maryland’s Lutheran Office on Public Policy.
“If we’re shuffling the burden of. . .the general welfare from any public entity to the religious and faith-based human services organizations, then we’re going to create problems,” Hudson said. “We don’t have that capacity.”
Federal law currently prohibits states from discriminating against religious organizations when doling out funds, under a concept known as “charitable choice.” The law lets such agencies hire and fire employees on the basis of religion and allows certain forms of religious expression, but prohibits proselytizing and requiring service recipients to engage in religious activities.
Charitable choice was enacted as part of the sweeping 1996 welfare reform law, but is currently limited to specific funds, most notably the federal block grant known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Bush has proposed expanding it to other federal social service funds.
Leaders of some religious and non-profit organizations in Maryland said they will be tracking Bush’s initiative carefully to see how it plays out.
“We have to be watchful that government doesn’t use this faith-based initiative. . .to unburden itself of taking care of those with the greatest needs,” said Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“We have always maintained that government’s first priority should be to help those who cannot help themselves,” Dowling said. “That’s certainly not the direction government always takes, but it’s the direction we think it should take before it goes off somewhere else.”
The question of how much responsibility government should delegate to the religious community is not new in Maryland.
The issue arose in the mid-1990s, when the state undertook its own version of welfare reform. Religious organizations were asked to become the “payees” for certain child beneficiaries, managing welfare benefits for children instead of letting their parents handle the money. But concerns about liability and other issues led many organizations to decline.
The General Assembly also debated the issue during the Reagan administration, when the “government succeeded in divesting itself” of some responsibility for taking care of the needy, Dowling said.
“The experience in Maryland and other states suggests that we have to be aggressive in our insisting that government must not expect religious groups to do the job that is primarily government’s job to do,” Dowling said.
In some ways, Bush’s initiative is not new. Since the welfare reform law of 1996, some states, including Maryland, have reached out to religious groups to encourage them to compete for federal grants.
For years, religious organizations such as Jewish Social Services and Catholic Charities have run social service programs, including nursing homes, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, supported by government funds.
Kerry Burch-DeLuca, spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Charities affiliate serving the Baltimore region and Western Maryland, said her agency is the state’s largest private provider of social services. Government dollars account for 74 percent of its operating budget, she said.
For some faith-based service providers in Maryland who have not routinely sought federal dollars for their programs, because of the restrictions on religious expression, Bush’s proposal is titillating.
“If the money came without a lot of strings attached,” said Fran Saybolt of Episcopal Social Ministries, her agency would “certainly be in there asking for it.”
Still, those who have been doing business with the government for a while suggest they will stay cautiously optimistic until they know more.
“I’m not sure faith-based communities are meant to do all of government’s work,” said Linda Meade of Catholic Charities.