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U.S. government's faith-based initiative moves ahead while dodging controversy

Published: Thursday, May 16 2013 5:30 a.m. MDT

When Acacia Bamberg Salatti runs down the accomplishments of the faith-based center in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one item is conspicuously missing from the list: how much money the center has handed out to churches and other religious groups.

That's because the center — like its sister centers in 12 other government agencies — doesn't deal in dollars.

"We are redefining what it means to be a partner with the federal government," said Salatti, acting director of HHS' Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "That used to mean government would give you a certain amount of money to do a certain thing. In the past four years, we have been creating opportunities where faith communities can engage with departments in non-financial partnerships and in more civic-type partnerships."

That engagement involves Sallati and her staff putting together webinars, publishing an online newsletter with 90,000 recipients and arranging meetings, like one at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Philadelphia where HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke to a congregation about what health care reform means to the local community.

Broadening the definition of doing business with government has effectively deflected much of the controversy that dogged the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in its early years. When President George W. Bush launched his faith-based initiative, critics immediately voiced concerns about illegal church-state entanglement, and the office was later accused of using the lure of government contracts to win votes in religious congressional districts.

The accusations never rose beyond bad publicity, although critics of the fledgling bureaucracy remain uncomfortable about the church-state implications of government getting chummy with religious groups. But with a new director who has vowed to continue the administration's strategy, no one is expecting much change or controversy to come out of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the next three years.

"I wouldn't hold my breath," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who helped establish the White House faith-based office during Bush's first term.

Preferential hiring

What can be expected from the faith-based office is a continued emphasis on distributing information to religious groups — information not just about where to apply for grants, but also initiatives and programs the government can offer to their communities.

"We do make our partners aware of grant opportunities through our newsletter," Salatti said. "But one thing we have found that’s refreshing is that people are thirsty for just information."

That's a different approach than what President Bush envisioned when he signed his first executive order in 2001, creating a mechanism to enlist church organizations, particularly those adept at caring for the poor in their communities, in helping the government deliver welfare services. Many faith-based groups had claimed there was a built-in bias against religion when it came to competing for federal grants and contracts, and the Bush administration took steps to remove that bias by helping religious groups compete for government funds.

But secular groups — and some religious groups — complained that awarding taxpayer dollars to faith-based organizations would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. They also complained that religious groups would have to comply with civil rights laws and be willing to hire those outside the faith if they were going to let government fund their charitable operations.

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