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Monopoly money?

National | Faith-based providers wonder whether Washington hates competition

Issue: "Summer Travel 2001," May 12, 2001

in Washington-In the "lower downtown" section of Denver, just blocks from Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play baseball, Bob Cote would like his Step 13 shelter to help every troubled soul who comes for help. (See WORLD, "His eyes have seen the folly," April 6, 1996.) But because of a recent murder by a parolee, the city of Denver passed a law that requires social service providers to register with the city and deal with a passel of regulations to treat parolees, so he sends them to other registered providers. In Florida's wealthy Palm Beach County, the county zoning board has fined the nondenominational Westgate Tabernacle church $23,400 for feeding and sheltering in its church building, without a license, 15-20 homeless people per night. The church spent about $6,000, not including volunteer labor costs, putting in new electrical wiring, fire alarms, and so forth, but government officials still demanded a complete renovation, including the addition of a full-service kitchen. Thanks to national publicity, Pastor Avis Hill told WORLD, "The county conveyed to my attorney if we would make them an offer, they'd consider it. But it worries me that if we offered a dollar, we'd be accepting the charges against us that we were wrong." Washington pundits who dismiss the notion of "compassionate conservatism" seldom consider the reality that governments at all levels often provide such regulatory obstacles to serving the poor. Mr. Cote and many other local social service providers came to Washington last week to remind them and to exchange ideas on how to change national poverty policy for the better. Rep. J.C. Watts and Sen. Rick Santorum welcomed hundreds to their "Faith-Based Leadership Summit" on Capitol Hill. A few days later, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise convened a group of social service providers in nearby Silver Spring, Md., to help that organization prepare a report for President Bush, Cabinet secretaries, and congressional leaders. Despite his resolve to steer clear of governmental meddling, Mr. Cote told WORLD he was excited by the potential for legislation that could deregulate the war on poverty and open up government agencies to a little competition: "This could make it an even playing field. Let's keep score, and see what works, and why. I know what's going to win in this Super Bowl of soup bowls. With our energy, faith can move mountains, and faith can move the wonks in Washington." But Washington wasn't rolling over as the first congressional hearings began on the Community Solutions Act sponsored by Rep. Watts and Democratic Rep. Tony Hall. When White House faith initiative point man John DiIulio testified on April 27, Democrat Elijah Cummings declared that any program with a religious character is "incompatible" with federal programs, and any faith-based bill would inspire nasty competition between churches for grants. Others criticized church groups that "discriminate" by only hiring from within the ranks of their religion. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a co-sponsor on the limited Senate faith-based bill with Sen. Santorum, announced he could not support any bill that allowed that practice, and Rep. Bobby Scott said he would "not tolerate turning the clock back on civil rights for a few pieces of silver." Watts aide Christine Iverson questioned that logic: "Congressman [Charles] Rangel's not forced to hire Republicans, and the American Cancer Society isn't forced to hire smokers. Why not let a faith-based group consist of people who share that mission day after day?" While Mr. DiIulio stressed to lawmakers that backing faith-based services wasn't funding religion, he also declared that pervasively religious programs should be allowed to compete for all types of government funds, direct grants as well as vouchers. "It can't be only one or the other," he said. His position has changed since an interview he granted weeks ago with liberal Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis, in which he suggested faith-based organizations shouldn't have to pretend they don't have a religious motivation, but also shouldn't proselytize: "Let them be who they are, but do not for one moment use public funds for the purpose of an indivisibly conversion-centered, proselytizing program." Outside the orbit of large, government-funded religious charities like Catholic Charities, small providers insist that separating missions from their messages would end up separating the sick from the cure. Mr. DiIulio no longer discriminates against proselytizing, and he still salts his talks on faith-based initiatives with the concept of subsidiarity, that those closest to the poor will be the most sensitive to their plight. But when local providers join the national debate on releasing the energy of new approaches, it becomes apparent that governments of all shapes and sizes can get in the way of effective faith-based community solutions. From his stadium neighborhood, Mr. Cote wondered if some obstacles may emerge from governmental fear of private-sector poverty-fighting success: "Why would they be afraid of the competition?"

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