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Published in Print: June 19, 2002, as New Ed. Dept. Office Reaches Out to the Faithful

New Ed. Dept. Office Reaches Out to the Faithful

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Officials from the Department of Education are touring the country this summer, spreading the gospel that religious and community groups are welcome to vie for federal education dollars.

The five-person staff of the department's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is leading the effort, part of the Bush administration's effort to make it easier for religious groups, in particular, to garner federal grants for providing social services. The department office, headed by newly appointed director John J. Porter, is hopping from Texas to Pennsylvania to North Carolina, letting local groups know that federal dollars are not off-limits.

A workshop on grant-proposal writing for community and faith-based groups, for instance, is scheduled for June 22 at Livingston College in Salisbury, N.C.

"Those groups have a connection to the community," said Mr. Porter, a lawyer from Pittsburgh. "It's a potent combination in helping children learn."

For leaders of many faith-based groups, which were once cut out of much of the federal funding world, it's a new experience to wade through the bureaucracy to get to the money.

The "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 threw open the door for greater involvement by such groups in federally financed education services when it specifically said faith-based groups were invited to apply for several grants, including aid under the $1.25 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. The law also said religious organizations—among other providers—were eligible to provide support for needy students in failing schools. Those schools must make "supplemental educational services" available to students under the new education act.

As grants are awarded later this summer and support services start up in the fall, educators, religious leaders, and civil rights groups are paying close attention to the direction that President Bush's emphasis on faith groups will take. Controversy remains over civil rights laws and how to ensure religion and education remain separate when it comes to federal funding. Religious groups too had concerns, worrying that taking federal money could infringe on their independence, as they're forced to comply with additional federal statutes.

"These are new and uncharted waters," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, based in Rosslyn, Va. "The devil's in the details, and we're not sure yet what those details are going to be."

Equal Footing

For years, many federal agencies assumed that laws prohibited faith-based groups from receiving federal funding, because those groups are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion. But U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years, which indicate the faith-based groups should instead be on equal footing with other groups, gave President Bush an opening, Mr. Haynes said.

In early 2001, Mr. Bush began a serious push for the federal government to connect with religious and community groups.

The White House formed its own Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, with offshoots in agencies including the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Education.

The Education Department office is serving as a touchstone for religious and community groups seeking to apply for federal funds. The staff hopes to make the process less intimidating for groups new to the federal system. A 2001 White House report found that only 2 percent of Education Department grants in 2000 had gone to faith-based or community groups. The overwhelming majority went to schools.

Despite that meager participation, and the administration's enthusiasm for faith-based groups, Mr. Porter said he doesn't want to give them an edge in competing for grants and other federal dollars. He said the intent is simply to "level the playing field."

"Our goal is to increase the number of effective providers," said Mr. Porter, who served on the board of a Pittsburgh Christian school for years. "If faith- based and community groups prove themselves to be that, that number will go up."

But some education and civil rights groups say they'll be watching as faith-based initiatives take effect and grants are awarded.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association say they're concerned religious groups will not be required to adhere to all civil rights laws. Currently, they are exempted from the laws that prohibit groups from discriminating on the basis of religion.

Randall J. Moody, a lobbyist for the NEA, said the 2.7 million-member teachers' union had already tussled with the Education Department over proposed regulations clarifying the supplemental-services aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act. Though language in the law specifically says faith-based groups can't discriminate, proposed regulations were "much weaker" than NEA was comfortable with, Mr. Moody said.

"There's been an exchange of correspondence and phone calls. We're hoping to get that straightened out," Mr. Moody said.

Mr. Porter said religious groups would be required to comply fully with civil rights laws that apply to them. Groups like the ACLU and the NEA, he maintained, "would like to discriminate against religious organizations by prohibiting them from being who they are."

"The federal government shouldn't be in the business of forcing a group to be something it's not," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 41, Pages 25,28

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