Law & Courts

Faith Groups Express Belief In Federal Aid

By Michelle R. Davis — June 16, 2004 8 min read
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The gymnasium at the Glassmanor Community Center echoed with the orchestrated “hee-ya!” of 100 young voices practicing karate kicks. Leaning against the wall of the gym were a mix of teenage girls, 6-year-olds in pigtails, and gangly boys in baggy pants.

“You will show self-discipline. You will show self-control,” barked instructor Bryant Parker, a black belt who looked imposing until a grin cracked across his face. The students at the class last month enthusiastically responded: “Yes sir!”

Janae Green, 6, practices martial arts in a class at a community center in Oxon Hill, Md. The Maryland Christian Academy received a $113,000 federal grant to run the after-school program.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

The karate class here is one of several specialty programs these underprivileged students have taken this past school year through a free after-school physical education program. The program is financed with federal dollars and run by the Maryland Christian Academy, a nearby religious school. It’s part of a growing national experiment to encourage the pairing of religious groups and the government.

Three years ago, President Bush began a push to help so-called faith-based organizations participate in federal programs and tap into federal money.

The president formed a special White House office, with offshoots in other agencies, including the Department of Education, to help steer religious groups through the federal grant system.

“We understand the power of faith in America, and the federal government will assist—not discriminate against you,” Mr. Bush said June 1 at a White House conference targeting faith-based groups.

The president has repeatedly said that local organizations, including those that are religiously affiliated, are better equipped than government agencies to provide community services such as drug counseling or tutoring.

The inclusion of faith-based groups is slowly gaining ground, but it is a surge that not everyone is comfortable with. As the number of religious organizations providing aid with public money grows, some groups are watching carefully to ensure that federal aid isn’t being used to support religious activities. Others have a different worry: The government might become too entangled in the affairs of religious organizations.

“It’s unclear what exactly they’re going to permit and not going to permit,” Marc D. Stern, the Washington-based general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, with headquarters in New York City, said of administration officials. “I don’t think anybody in the country has a grasp of what’s really going on.”

Gray Areas Remain

Since President Bush announced his goal of flowing more federal aid to faith-based groups, the number of groups receiving federal education aid has risen, said John J. Porter, the director of the Education Department’s center for faith-based and community initiatives.

In fiscal 2001, 2.4 percent of money, or more than $2.8 million from the department’s discretionary grant programs, went to faith-based groups. By 2003, that proportion had more than doubled, to 5.1 percent, or $6.8 million, he said. Those figures do not include grants administered by the state, such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that have been labeled “in need of improvement” to provide free tutoring for their students. In January 2003, only 2 percent of the 771 supplemental-services providers on state-approved lists were faith-based, but by December the proportion had risen to 9 percent.

“We have not set any quotas, and we don’t have any targets,” Mr. Porter said. “We’re not measuring success by the increase of money to faith-based groups.”

Early in his administration, President Bush had urged Congress to pass a bill that would have made it easier for religious charities to receive federal funding, but that plan didn’t get far with lawmakers. The president then issued executive orders demanding that faith-based groups get equal consideration when it came to grants. In the past, the Education Department had essentially discouraged most faith-based groups from applying for grants, said Bob Tuttle, a co- director of legal analysis for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, an Albany, N.Y.-based research organization.

Things have changed. On June 4, the Education Department issued a final regulation on participation by religious organizations that stresses an equal playing field for faith-based groups applying for federal funding. In part, the new regulation seeks to clarify just what “inherently religious activities” groups must avoid paying for with federal money, such as Bibles or worship services. It says groups must provide services with federal funds to participants regardless of their faith.

But information provided by the faith-based office also seeks to assure groups that they can continue to embrace their beliefs, leaving crucifixes on classroom walls, for example.

Gray areas remain, however, and lawsuits are a real possibility.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there where the line is drawn,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, in Arlington, Va., which studies religious-freedom issues.

“A lot of churches feel frustrated because it’s so complicated,” he said, “and they’re not sure it’s worth all the bureaucratic problems.”

In particular, a struggle over hiring practices for faith-based groups remains unresolved.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows religious organizations to hire on the basis of religion. A Roman Catholic group, for example, can make being Catholic a criterion for filling a position such as a teacher.

But when such groups are receiving federal money, the legal situation becomes hazier and remains to be tested in the courts.

That ambiguity is a concern for some faith-based groups, said Gregory S. Baylor, the director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society, based in Annandale, Va.

“There is a fear that no one can guarantee the rules are not going to change,” he said.

Some programs are acutely aware of the boundaries.

Angie Hughes, the coordinator for Startline, the youth-ministry effort for City Church in Seattle, said she has strict instructions for her tutors, who serve about 250 students, with only a handful falling under the umbrella of the No Child Left Behind supplemental-services provision.

“We tell them you don’t talk to anybody about your religion, because we’re there to tutor,” Ms. Hughes said. “We don’t want any legal problems.”

A True Calling

But often religion seeps in. At the Maryland Christian Academy’s after-school program here in Oxon Hill, a suburb of Washington, students get healthy snacks and learn the benefits of exercise and eating fruits and vegetables. Stacey K. Crooks, the academy’s director, said the martial arts, hip-hop dancing, and basketball classes get the often-sedentary students moving.

Ms. Crooks said she learned through the Internet that religious organizations like hers could get federal money. She received $113,000 for the program for a year and hopes to expand.

The students seem committed. “I like it because it gets me in shape,” said Keviana Key, a baby-faced 12-year-old who patted her stomach. “I lost my belly.”

For others, the program is a refuge. “People used to pick on us. Then we come in here and nobody can mess with us,” said 11-year-old William McDuffie.

The students often come from difficult backgrounds and differing religions, Ms. Crooks said. That’s one reason she said she holds the program in the neighborhood community center instead of a church.

“We want them to come no matter what they believe,” Ms. Crooks said. “We feel that if we love them enough, they’ll keep coming back.”

Some of the students have shown up hungry, others used to run with gangs, and several are overweight. But for many of these children, the five-day a week program has been a lifeline. It’s a prime example of what President Bush believes faith-based groups can achieve. And though Ms. Crooks and Mr. Parker, the martial arts instructor, say they make it a point not to discuss religion, it seems clear that God nevertheless plays an important role.

“This is our calling,” Mr. Parker said.

Though there’s no overt discussion of God or the Bible at the after-school program, the pizza parties are hosted by a disc jockey who plays gospel music.

In other programs, the role religion plays is less subtle. Each day after school, some 100 children enter the Living Word Church, a bilingual, multicultural ministry in Orlando, Fla., where the Rev. Abner Adorno has them running on treadmills and doing aerobics. They pass by crosses on the walls and Bibles on the tables. The program is paid for with a $124,000 grant through the federal Education Department, and Mr. Adorno said he makes a concerted effort not to discuss religion with his after-school exercisers.

“They’re using our facilities and can see what’s on our walls enough to make a presence,” he said. “If they can feel they can have fun in a church facility, then I’m sure they’ll warm up to going to one of the church services.”

Mr. Porter of the Education Department’s faith-based center said that so far, he was not aware of any specific complaints about religious activity in federally supported programs. In many communities, the hiring issues and church and state issues are not a big concern, he said.

“Out there in the field, they’re not hung up on those things,” Mr. Porter said.

But groups should be thinking of the legal issues, said Mr. Tuttle, of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

“Unfortunately, people’s ignorance of the law in the interest of getting good things done is not going to get them out of a lawsuit,” he said.

In Philadelphia, the Rev. Benjamin Green said that while his Abiding Truth Ministries church is accepting federal money for tutoring about 15 students this year, the church’s overriding commitment is to saving souls.

His church’s tutors don’t talk religion during their sessions, but “in everything that we do, the ultimate goal should be to make someone aware of Christ,” Mr. Green said.

“We’re going to do what we’re supposed to as a church first and foremost,” he said. “If it ever came to a place where there was a conflict, we would just forgo government money. We’d simply say thanks, but no thanks.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Faith Groups Express Belief In Federal Aid

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