PBS Looks at Faith-Based Initiative as Program Lingers in Legislative Limbo

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

Washington (CNSNews.com) - The former Democratic mayor of Philadelphia is among those praising President Bush's faith-based initiative even as a top official with the National League of Cities criticizes the proposal.

Both former Mayor Wilson Goode and the principal legislative counsel for the National League of Cities, Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, attended this week's screening of a PBS documentary on the faith-based initiative. A scaled-back version of the initiative passed the Senate in April, and the House bill authorizing the program is currently being debated.

Goode, who is also a minister, currently serves as a senior advisor for Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia, a group that has worked closely with the Bush administration on the faith-based initiative.

"What the president has proposed is that faith-based programs have access to funding, that is happening in a way that has never happened before," Goode told CNSNews.com.

"I think [Bush] has done a good job in leading, I think that he has done a good job in getting the issue out in front of the people. We all are better off because of that," Goode added.

Goode took part in a panel discussion following Tuesday's screening of the PBS documentary, God and the Inner City, which was funded by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and Manifold Productions, Inc.

The documentary profiles three separate faith-based projects and offers a behind-the-scenes look at how they operate. The documentary, produced by Michael Pack, will premiere nationally on PBS on June 22.

Pluviose-Fenton expressed a different view of Bush's faith-based initiative, saying her group is especially disappointed by the administration's efforts to use the project to justify cuts in the government funding of social services.

"We are really disappointed with the effort to cut the $1.8 billion for social service block grants...the White House basically said it was okay to cut the $1.8 billion," Pluviose-Fenton said.

"We need to fund the proper government programs to also insure that we are not just pushing all the responsibility to faith-based institutions...so we are disappointed," she added.

President Bush proposed his faith-based initiative to stop what he called "the unfair treatment of religious charities by the federal government." When the federal government gives contracts to private groups to provide social services, religious groups should have an equal chance to compete, he said in a speech in December.

The initiative has run into some roadblocks in Congress because of the reluctance of some religious groups to take government money and because of the protests of some civil liberties groups that object to what they see as government-sponsored religious programs.

The legislation has also faced organized opposition from conservatives worried about the attempts of environmental groups to expand the initiative to include green causes, a subject on which CNSNews.com first reported last December.

At Tuesday's event, panel moderator E.J. Dionne, Jr., co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a columnist for the Washington Post, said he believes there are political forces that want to use the faith-based initiative to cut social service spending.

"I think some conservatives would use this to justify cuts in service," Dionne told CNSNews.com.

But Dionne then qualified his statement.

"I know too many conservatives who care about the poor to believe that that's true of everybody," he explained.

"I do believe there are some folks who, let's say for their own principled reasons, really would like to cut back on government and would like this to be the compassionate face of cutting back on government," Dionne added.

While the panel favored the concept of the faith-based initiative, many did not agree with the administration's effort to allow religious institutions receiving faith-based government funds an exemption from federal hiring regulations.

"We think it is illogical that you would have a job training bill that would also permit those who are providing...job training to discriminate in their hiring. That is illogical, and it is not sound public policy," Pluviose-Fenton explained.

"It pre-empts so much of our local laws that prohibit discrimination not only on race, color, religion and creed, but also sexual orientation, marital status. We just don't think promoting discrimination is worthy in the name of the faith-based initiative," she added.

Goode dismissed the objections of some religious groups that do not want to be forced by the federal government to hire homosexuals as a condition of receiving faith-based funds.

"Those issues are not issues that I would be concerned about. I think that if you take government money and then you apply by the government rules...you [need to] serve the people rather than worry about those kinds what I call personal theological issues," Goode said.

"People who take money ought to know what the rules are and simply comply with those rules and get the job done," he added.

But Dionne believes the problem of imposing federal hiring regulations on religious groups that participate in the faith-based initiative is significant.

"It casts two sets of fundamental rights against each other, the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination and the rights of religious institutions to defend as they see it their own organizational integrity," he explained.

"There are certain key constituents in both parties that want to cleave very hard to both those rights," Dionne said.

Dionne believes the partisan and ideological-charged atmosphere will need to cool before a resolution can be found.

"It will take some years before we can step back again," he predicted.

See Earlier Stories:
Environmentalists Accused of 'Hijacking' the Faith Based Initiative
(April 9, 2003)
White House Defends Plan for Faith-Based Environmental Grants (January 13, 2003)

E-mail a news tip to Marc Morano.

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