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Religious Groups Get Federal Funds

Training: Top official says $30 million in grants are part of the Bush administration initiative to level the playing field for faith-based and community agencies.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $30 million in grants to religious organizations this week, the second round of allocations made as part of President Bush's faith-based initiative.

The bulk of the funds--$24.8 million from the department's Compassion Capital Fund--will be shared by 21 agencies. Those groups will act as intermediaries and provide technical assistance to other faith-based and community groups, teaching them how to write grants, manage their programs and train their staffs.

After training the smaller groups, the intermediaries will redirect some of the federal money to programs aimed at homelessness, hunger and rehabilitation of addicts or prisoners.

"With today's awards, we begin a new effort to help faith- and community-based organizations get a fair and equal opportunity to compete for HHS funds," department Secretary Tommy Thompson said in announcing the grants Thursday.

Only one organization in California received a grant: St. Vincent de Paul Management Inc. in San Diego. Nationally, the recipients include such organizations as Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing International.

Father Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul, said the $500,000 grant would be used to help train volunteers at six or seven smaller San Diego County agencies. Then the organization will give them grants of up to $30,000.

"One of the objections a number of us raised in the beginning was that a lot of small faith-based agencies are well-meaning but not professional enough to make this initiative successful," Carroll said. "So, for example, we will train you to run a soup kitchen, and then give you a grant to actually do it."

His organization, which will match the federal grant with $300,000 of its own, is one of the most active and well-known social services groups in the state, feeding 4,000 people a day and sheltering 900.

By dint of his colorful personality, Carroll himself looms large in the world of social service advocacy. Originally from a scrappy neighborhood in the Bronx, he somewhat reluctantly became a priest, and for the past 20 years has been a vocal anti-poverty advocate.

"I did it because I thought being a priest would be easy--that I'd only have to work on Sundays," he deadpanned.

In a few cases, the federal grant money was awarded to programs that already help community groups, such as the National Center for Faith Based Initiative, a West Palm Beach, Fla., organization that received $700,000.

"It's going to help us take more ... training symposiums around the country," said Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, chairman of the center, which helps community and faith-based groups form partnerships with other organizations in the private and public sector.

While grant recipients hailed their awards, not everyone was pleased. The award to Robertson's organization drew particular controversy. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the group did not merit an award because of Robertson's public criticism of Islam.

"Anyone who exhibits such bigoted views is unworthy to receive taxpayer dollars," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Islamic advocacy group, said in a statement. "The White House initiative must not assist, even indirectly, those who would defame Islam and divide our nation."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also criticized the Bush administration's plan to allow religious intermediaries to distribute public funds.

"Giving religious groups control over public funds is a blatant violation of the Constitution," Lynn said in a statement. "Under the 1st Amendment, religious ministries shouldn't become an arm of the government."

Among other demonstration grants announced Thursday were $1.5 million to Emory University in Atlanta, which is affiliated with the United Methodist church; $1 million to Mennonite Economic Development Associates in Lancaster, Pa.; and almost $700,000 to Volunteers of America, a spiritually based organization in Alexandria, Va.

The Health and Human Services Department also awarded four research grants totaling more than $850,000 for study of the role that faith-based and community groups play in providing social services in their communities.

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