Federal grants offered only to religious groups draw outcry

By The Associated Press
During a January ceremony in Washington, President Bush is joined by the leaders of faith-based organizations as he announces a plan for them to assist in solving social ills using government funds.

WASHINGTON — Federal grants to prevent HIV and drug abuse are being offered only to religious groups, in what opponents say is the first-ever set-aside for religion.

They maintain that the Department of Health and Human Services program offering grants for organizations that work with young people is hypocritical and blatantly unconstitutional in specifying that applicants must be "faith-based organizations" or be working with them.

"It's totally inconsistent with this administration's constant claim that everybody should be on equal footing," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Lynn promised yesterday to file suit by July, when applications are due, if HHS does not change its rules for eligibility.

The $4 million in grants are meant to help organizations, particularly in black and Hispanic communities, address drug abuse and HIV prevention at the same time. The program, put in place before Bush took office in January, totals $16.6 million, has three components, but only one of them excludes secular groups.

The agency's first effort to set money aside for religious groups was done because officials believe these groups are in the best position to reach at-risk teens, said Mark Weber, a spokesman for HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Faith-based organizations have access to the young people we are trying to reach," Weber said.

The legal debate over funding religious groups typically centers on whether the tax dollars they get amounts to an unconstitutional mingling of church and state. Opponents have argued that even if religious and secular groups are both funded, funding religious groups violates the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson yesterday, Lynn cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that is usually used by the other side — one that he blasted when it was issued. He quoted Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who wrote that government money must be "available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis."

Weber said these legal issues "absolutely" were discussed.

"Before we put anything out on the street like this, we make sure we've crossed our t's and dotted our i's," he said. "We're very aware of what's constitutional and what's not constitutional."

Bush, in promoting his faith-based initiative, has consistently stressed the idea of equal competition. "When people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them," he said in announcing his initiative on Jan. 29.

A coalition of conservatives made the same point when they rallied around the Bush plan last month, issuing a statement of principles that said any legislation should not only avoid preferences among religions but also avoid "preferences between religious and nonreligious providers."

The White House had no immediate comment on whether the program belies the president's principles. But one Bush backer said he hoped that the president would order a change in the application.

"The principles we're arguing for is there ought to be no discrimination," said James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice. If the White House was on board with the religious set-aside, he said, "that would shock me off my feet."

Another conservative wasn't sure it was a bad idea.

"For so long, there's been so much discrimination against faith-based organizations," said Connie Marshner of the Free Congress Foundation. "I'd say it's a leveling of the field."