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Hidden Costs of Faith-Based Funding

February 10, 2001|JAMES CONN | The Rev. James Conn is the urban strategist for the United Methodist Church in Southern California and Hawaii

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 capacity?

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.

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