[Hpn] Faith-Based Funding's Hidden Costs by Rev. James Conn (fwd)
Mon, 12 Feb 2001 19:38:15 -0800 (PST)
FWD Los Angeles Times - Saturday, February 10, 2001
HIDDEN COSTS OF FAITH-BASED FUNDING
By JAMES CONN
For eight years I lived at the intersection of Church and State. I
was a United Methodist minister serving a church in Santa Monica when I
was elected to the City Council. In those years I was a faith leader and
a public policymaker, both minister and mayor. From that perspective, I
look at President Bush's initiative to fund and deliver human services
through religious organizations.
In my experience, the public expects those of us who hold the public
trust to act and make decisions in ways that reflect the values of our
faith. On the other hand, the public hopes that those policy decisions
are not a mere extension of any specific religion's polity or dogma.
Those dual concerns have fared well under current government contracts
with faith-related organizations that provide social services. One
government entity or another funds the vast majority of the services
offered by Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, the Jewish Federation
and Lutheran Social Services. Furthermore, many of the so-called secular
nonprofit human service agencies funded by the government were founded by
religious organizations. The relationship has a long history.
Moreover, our region is not the place to worry about the funding of
faith-based human services. In Los Angeles County, there are many secular
nonprofit organizations offering job training, food, shelter, crisis
intervention or health care. If people do not want to go to a program
because it operates out of a house of worship, they can go elsewhere.
They have options.
But in the rural areas of this country people may not have those
options. When you leave the big cities, services become less available
and the majority religious ethos become more dominant. In those corners
of the United States the separation of church and state may be a critical
factor in whether people receive the services they need. If people have
to sit through Bible study to get groceries or a vaccination because
there is no other choice, that's not OK.
There are also issues facing faith communities here. One is
record-keeping. Government programs often require extensive paperwork on
the people served through its funding. This record-keeping can be
invasive. Its requirements put funded agencies in the position of being
little more than an extension of the government, and many secular human
service agencies already complain about this ever-increasing tendency. Do
faith communities want to put themselves in this position as well?
A second concern expands on the first. Faith communities teach an
ethic of inclusiveness, but government rules preclude some people from
receiving services. Undocumented immigrants, for example, often turn to
religious organizations because no one else will help them. If the faith
communities also turn away these people because of government funding
restrictions, who will respond?
Third, the vast majority of faith communities in our region do not
have the organizational infrastructure to handle a government contract.
They do not have the systems in place to meet the government's standards
of accounting and accountability. Even if faith communities want to
provide the services, who will teach those skills and build that
Finally, unless the government is adding new funds for faith-based
human services, faith communities that are interested in using government
funds to serve their neighborhoods will find themselves competing for the
same dollars as other nonprofit organizations that already exist. That
competition can only divide the serving efforts and further fragment
neighborhoods. Who will facilitate the partnerships and cooperation that
make for a strong continuum of care?
Government funding of faith-related human services is a well-trod
road. Funding religious organizations themselves to provide these
services may be an effective variation on this practice. But no one
should march down this path without knowing where the pitfalls lurk.
Already too many people have become acculturated to going to church to
get a handout instead of a hand up. As one downtown clergy colleague told
me: "I have people show up on Sunday and ask me afterward where they get
their sack of groceries; they've logged the time and they expect a
payoff." That's the wrong message for both the church and the state.
The Rev. James Conn is the Urban Strategist for the
United Methodist Church in Southern California and Hawaii
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material
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