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October 7, 2000
Column #997

"CHARITABLE CHOICE"

     HOUSTON -- Should churches, synagogues and mosques be given a major role by government in helping people to break free of welfare, drugs and crime?

     Some say there should be a total separation of church and state. In fact, in 1995 Texas state agencies tried to shut down two highly successful faith-based drug treatment programs, Victory Fellowship and Teen Challenge because neither offered medical treatment to addicts, but only Bible study and prayer. One study showed that Teen Challenge was 86 percent successful because it changed the hearts of its clients. Though that cure rate was far above that of more traditional medical-model programs, state officials tried to shut both programs down for operating without licenses for medical care.

     Newly-elected Gov. Bush overruled the bureaucrats and later signed a nationally unprecedented executive order in 1996 allowing faith-based organizations to compete for state contracts to provide welfare services while maintaining their ''unique ecclesiastical nature.'' In the past, day care centers in churches had to take down religious symbols, such as crosses.

     He created a faith-based task force to look into ways government could encourage houses of worship to offer child care, job training and other social services without jeopardizing their religious missions. The result: laws were passed in 1997 by the Legislature exempting all faith-based alcohol and drug treatment programs and church day care from usual state rules. Prison Fellowship was given a contract to run one wing of a prison which has been so successful in rehabilitating inmates that Oklahoma and Iowa have created similar Christian prisons.

     Gov. Bush says, ''Government can hand out money, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. It can not bring peace of mind. It cannot fill the spiritual well from which we draw strength from day to day. Only faith can do that. In the final analysis, there is no overcoming of anything without faith be it drugs, or alcohol or poverty or selfishness or flawed social policy.''

     The task of helping welfare recipients to find jobs has traditionally been left up to county employees. But many inner city churches are known and trusted by the poor. Therefore, a group called ''Family Pathfinders'' has identified 122 churches which recruited volunteers who have worked with nearly 500 mothers on welfare, four-fifths of whom have become self-sufficient. The staff which matches volunteers with the clients is paid with government funds. Some 565 nursing homes have been ''adopted'' by 1,327 faith-based organizations.

     The Texas Department of Human Services reports that 57,159 volunteers have donated 500,000 hours of time. Similarly, the Texas Workforce Commission is working with 350 faith-based groups such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, who in turn involve hundreds of churches. A single Houston umbrella group, Interfaith of the Woodlands, has received $11 million of contracts to help welfare moms find jobs.

     Indeed, the federal welfare reform legislation has a section called ''Charitable Choice'' which requires states receiving federal funds to take similar steps. But according to the Center for Public Justice, a non-partisan Christian research agency, 40 states ''are ignoring Charitable Choice rules'' and received an F on a ''Report Card'' published last week, including such states as New York, Alabama, Florida, Connecticut, Washington and South Dakota.

     Only Texas earned an A+ for the nation's ''most aggressive compliance with Charitable Choice.'' Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin received an A, while Illinois and Pennsylvania. got B's.

     Stanley Carson-Thies, who directed the study, noted that California recently allowed faith-based organizations to compete for $5 million of employment contracts, as long as they were not ''pervasively sectarian.'' He said, ''That's as if churches were told, `We welcome you, but don't be too religious.' New Hampshire said all of its providers have to be `totally secular.'''

     Charitable Choice opens a new world for churches. ''If we are honest, we have been busy doing many good things but are not changing many things,'' said Amy Sherman of the Hudson Institute, speaking in Houston at America's first state-wide Faith In Action conference. ''We are trapped in a commodity-based model, writing checks for those in trouble.

     ''This is insufficient. We need to go further. The Good Samaritan did not just toss tracts and Bible messages at the wounded traveler, but got personally involved. True mercy is not at arm's length. Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself with the suffering of another.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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