CONCORD, N.H. — The state’s health and human services commissioner is pushing to expand the role religious organizations play in providing social services.
Commissioner John Stephen’s Faith-Based Community Initiative is modeled after similar efforts by the Bush administration. Though the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services has long relied on religious groups to place children in adoptive homes and provide other services, Stephen’s new program represents a more concerted effort to reach out to the organizations.
On July 2, Stephen told religious leaders and state employees that the program would allow them to work together to help people using existing resources.
“We are really building some momentum here,” Stephen said.
Kevin Smith at the state division for juvenile justice said the distinction between church and state would be maintained despite the new partnerships.
“Obviously, there’s not going to be preaching from the pulpit when we have state and faith-based partnerships,” he said. But “there’s a lot of commonalities that both entities have, and we can work on those things without crossing the line between separation of church and state.”
Religious groups could provide job counseling, adoption and foster care placements and assistance to elderly residents, Smith said. Organizers plan to create a Web site to alert residents about training events and needed services, and the partnership would point religious groups toward available state and federal grants.
The Department of Education and Department of Employment Security also have joined the initiative. Employment Security Commissioner Richard Brothers said he hopes to train members of religious groups to help residents craft resumes and look for jobs.
State Sen. Kathleen Sgambati, D-Tilton, who previously served as acting commissioner of Health and Human Services, said such arrangements are nothing new.
“There have always been contractors for the department in community-based services, and some of them have been faith-based,” she said. “It’s a question of who can provide the best services.”
Sen. Peter Burling, meanwhile, questioned whether the new initiative was the product of Stephen’s political ambition. The commissioner is said to be considering a run for Congress next year.
“This again, is another thing that hasn’t been disclosed to the rest of us,” Burling, D-Cornish, said. “It is policy independent of legislative input, policy driven by ambition.”