Bush makes it easier for religious groups to get federal funding
by Lisa Keen
President Bush this month announced the creation of a new office within the Department of Homeland Security – this one is charged with making it easier for "faith-based and other community organizations" to obtain federal funding to provide "social and community services." But while many gay organizations provide such services, there is little expectation among them that the president's new Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office is going to help them.
"In our experience, very little" federal funding under Bush's five-year-old program is going to gay groups that provide social and community services, said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. The Gay & Lesbian Center, the largest of its kind in the country, provides a wide range of social and community services – including HIV-related medical services, shelter for homeless youth, and drug and alcohol recovery programs. But Jean says the center lost a $200,000 grant and that "inside sources told us [the loss] was directly a result of the faith-based initiatives."
According to Bush, in a March 9 speech before the Second White House Conference on the Faith-based and Community Initiative, the new Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will "incorporate faith-based and other community organizations in department programs and initiatives to the greatest extent possible." It will also "propose the development of innovative pilot and demonstration programs to increase the participation of faith-based and other community organizations in federal as well as state and local initiatives."
Announcements such as this are getting very little media attention. Last month, when the president signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, most reports focused on its aim to cut the country's $1.3 trillion deficit by $40 billion of cuts in programs for seniors, citizens with low incomes, and students. But also in that bill was a provision to extend Bush's faith-based initiative another five years and to expand it to two new programs – on "healthy marriage" and "responsible fatherhood."
In his March 9 speech, Bush said the federal government awarded more than $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2005 in "grants to faith-based organizations" – an increase of 7 percent over the previous year. The total amounted to about 11 percent of "all federal competitive social service grants," touted Bush.
And 37 percent of the money was distributed through grants from the Department of Health and Human Services – the department which handles the bulk of funding for AIDS-related work. In fact, noted the White House, HHS has increased its funding to faith-based organizations by 64 percent since fiscal year 2002 – from $477 million to $780 million.
Bush noted that "something like 30 governors" have created faith-based offices, as a result of his program, as have "over a hundred mayors."
The program, he said, "allows faith-based groups to receive federal funding without changing their hiring practices."
But that, in the minds of many gay people, is code language for allowing discrimination against gays.
"We are concerned that the president's funding initiatives open a door to using religion as a proxy for discrimination," said Jay Smith Brown, director of communication strategies for the Human Rights Campaign.
"We aren't opposed to faith-based funding," said Brown, "but when the language of these initiatives threatens to roll back existing civil rights protections we do take issue."
An example, he noted, was last fall when the Bush administration urged Congress to pass legislation that would have allowed religious groups providing Head Start programs an exemption to its nondiscrimination requirements. Those requirements do not cover sexual orientation discrimination, but in a letter to members of Congress, HRC explained that it was concerned that "any provisions that allow federally funded religious discrimination will pre-empt local and state nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity."
In his speech before the White House faith-based conference, Bush said he wants to do even more. Now, he said, he wants to create new tax breaks for corporations, as an incentive for them to contribute more private funding to faith-based groups. Noting that 20 percent of 50 corporations surveyed by the White House deliberately eschew making contributions to religious organizations, Bush pitched this as a way to level the playing field for charitable groups. But rather than create a level playing field, this would almost certainly tip the field in favor of religious groups, since other groups would not be able to provide tax breaks to corporate givers.
Jim Towey, head of the White House office on faith-based initiatives, said, in response to a question on the White House Web site, that his office "has been set up in a way that is constitutional – we don't favor any faith, nor does government fund religious activity."
The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center isn't convinced and has moved to re-position itself in hopes of regaining federal funding for some of its programs.
"After a big discussion about whether we should participate in a program that we feel is completely wrong," said Jean, "we decided to go forward with a faith-based partnership."
The center submitted a proposal for a Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project with faith-based partners Beth Chayim Chadashim, Kol Ami, and Metropolitan Community Church. The $225,824 grant for one year was approved through the Department of Justice.