Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Report Faults Safeguards in Religion Program

WASHINGTON, July 18 — The Bush administration’s program of financing social service initiatives run by religiously affiliated groups lacks adequate safeguards against religious discrimination and has yet to measure the performance of the groups, a new Congressional report says.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, did not find evidence of a widespread diversion of government money to religious activity from social services, which had been a concern of some critics of such religion-based initiatives.

But in looking at 10 federal programs, the researchers found that only four gave an explicit statement to religious organizations about protecting the religious liberties of the people they serve.

“The Bush administration has a responsibility to make sure that federal taxpayer dollars are not being sent to organizations that discriminate, but it is failing to uphold that responsibility,” said Representative George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, in a written statement. “As a result, we don’t know if Americans who are eligible for services are missing out on them because of their religious beliefs.”

Alyssa J. McClenning, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the program protected the separation of church and state.

“Grantees are provided with an explicit statement of the safeguard prohibiting the use of direct federal funds for inherently religious activities,” Ms. McClenning said by e-mail.

Mr. Miller and Representative Pete Stark of California, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Health of the Ways and Means Committee, requested the report in September 2004.

Robert W. Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University who is an expert on religion-based initiatives, said the report described problems that many had anticipated.

The Bush administration, Professor Tuttle said, has declined to provide clear information about what constitutes so-called “inherently religious” activities that would violate the separation of church and state.

In 2001, the administration created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In the 2005 fiscal year, the federal government awarded more than $2.1 billion to religious organizations, according to Mr. Stark’s office.

Part of the administration’s argument for broadening the participation of religious groups in social services has been that they perform as well as or better than their secular counterparts, experts on the initiatives said. But the accountability office report found that only one of 15 pilot programs examined had completed an evaluation of its outcomes.

“Congress didn’t put enough emphasis’’ on measuring results, said Representative Mark E. Souder, Republican of Indiana, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, which oversees the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “The administration has been lax on this, but it is improving.”

The report found that the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Labor took issue with a recommendation that articulates safeguards against religious discrimination.

“They stated that such a requirement would involve singling out faith-based organizations for greater oversight and monitoring than other program participants on the basis of presumed or confirmed religious affiliation,” the report stated. “In our view, creating a level playing field for faith-based organizations does not mean that agencies should be relieved of their oversight responsibilities relating to the equal treatment regulations.”

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