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Ye of Little Faith? In God, Not the Government, They Trust

Some religious leaders have doubts that the bureaucracy can deliver federal funds without strings attached.

March 02, 2001|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ray Gimenez was excited when a government grant for $367,000 came his way two years ago. He had been operating Victory Center for homeless men and wanted to expand. The first $100,000 went to acquiring and remodeling Victory Garden, a similar home for women. Now, the government wants the money back.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development informed the Christian minister last fall that he would lose his grant unless he took religion out of his women's shelter program. No more Bible study, preaching or Scripture-based counseling. He complied, even though, he says, he made clear when he applied for the grant that his shelters in Clinton, Iowa, offer religion-based services. He was also told by HUD that he had to create a separate, secular board for Victory Garden. "I asked what they mean by 'secular,' " he recalls. "They told me they'd ask their lawyers and get back to me. I never heard anything."

Tangled in red tape, Gimenez finally cut the ties. But he is not out of the tangle quite yet. On Tuesday his board voted not to return the $100,000 that has already been spent on Victory Garden. Gimenez plans to fight, and whether he wins the battle or not, he has no doubt about his future with HUD. "We don't want their money, ever again," he says.

As President Bush develops his proposal to make federal dollars more easily available to religion-based social service programs, many religious leaders and others already working in the field remain skeptical. When he presented his plan in January, the most serious concerns came from liberal, secular voices such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. Now, misgivings are coming from many religious leaders, including a number of conservatives who otherwise favor Bush policies.

Some, like Gimenez, have been burned by government regulations that imposed changes they did not like. Others say the potential for government management problems makes Bush's offer less than appealing. Some members of religious minorities fear that the proposal will favor larger, better established organizations and that they will be overlooked. And there are some who warn that the grants lead to spiritual compromises; they say religion gets lost in the bargain.

Bush is clearly aware of at least some of these problems. When he introduced his proposal he said he intended to clear away bureaucratic obstacles. His proposal would allow religious communities to maintain their identities, keep their symbols on display and engage their philosophies as part of their programs. It would not, however, allow government funding for religious education or proselytizing.

Among the many early supporters of his plan were Call to Renewal, a national Christian network that fights poverty, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A group of African American pastors, including Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles and the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community in Boston, signed a pastoral letter encouraging cooperation and support between African Americans and the Bush administration.

Perhaps the highest-profile religious leader to criticize the Bush plan is Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, who recently raised questions on his television talk show, "The 700 Club." Bush's promise to make federal money available to all religious groups, including the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishnas, concerns Robertson. He referred on his show to the "brainwashing techniques," and "underhanded tactics" the groups have been accused of in the past. Representatives from those groups denied such charges.

Charles Colson, a convicted Watergate felon who now directs Prison Fellowship Ministries, is past the questioning phase. His national program has rejected government grants in some states because they would limit the religious component of his program. His ministries are funded almost entirely by private donations. All he asks of government is help getting access to prison inmates.

That much said, he is optimistic about the Bush proposal. "We'll gladly take aid when it doesn't compromise our proclaiming the Gospel," he says. "I've cautioned the Bush people that if they try to take the faith component out of programs like ours, they'll loose the value of the program."

Many others remain suspicious of government involvement, including the Rev. Stephen Burger, director of the Assn. of Gospel Rescue Missions in Kansas City, Mo. (The Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles is one of the 270 missions in the association.) Burger says that 17% of the association's members receive some money from state, county or federal government, but the money is used for feeding and transitional housing programs, for example.

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