Originally created 02/10/01

Church and state



The 12-year-old Augusta chapter of Habitat for Humanity will nail down its 50th house this year.

Networked with the international Habitat based in Americus, Ga., area crews are devoted to providing sound, safe housing for low-income families.

"We don't want to tell people we are Christians - we want to show them," said Hugh Tarcai, Augusta Habitat business manager.

But to complete the chapter's vision of rebuilding a neighborhood near Barton Chapel Road, it needs more volunteers and more money.

Although the parent organization accepts federal funds, the Augusta-area chapter doesn't as yet, but the ministry and other area faith-based groups are rethinking that stance since President Bush established the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives last month.

The office has a two-fold mission: To eliminate unnecessary barriers to the government's contracting with grass-roots and faith-based organizations for social services; and to improve the faith-based organizations' ability to serve. Jr., will work to improve the faith-based organizations' ability to serve.}

The office could benefit the mission of groups such as Augusta Habitat if the federal money comes without requirements that would inhibit the ministry.

"The critical point is - (we'd accept federal dollars) as long as we are free to do our witness," Mr. Tarcai said.

The non-profit parent ministry, Habitat International, based in Americus, Ga., was the 15th-largest builder in the United States last year, according to Portland, Ore.-based Builder magazine. Habitat uses government funds to cover part of its expenses for street or utility work, purchasing land or houses or running its operation.

"Where we stand now is (that) we are clearly recognized as a faith-based organization which has demonstrated for 25 years that we can bring passion, inspiration and even organizing expertise to bear on a social question. In our case, it is housing," said Michael Crook, an Americus-based spokesman for the ministry.

But Habitat, supported by donations from individuals, churches and corporations, shuns government funding except on its own terms, that is, without compromise of its Christian witness.

Antioch Ministries Inc. and Golden Harvest Food Bank say they would consider expanded use of federal assistance.

Mr. Bush's initiative "can't be anything but good for us," said Scylance Scott Jr., executive director of Antioch Ministries.

The faith-based, nonprofit organization was honored with the 1997 John Gunther Award by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its initial effort, rehabbing 11 houses in the Bethlehem community, a $650,000 project funded with federal and city grants.

The second phase targets 20 houses near the Florence Street church. The more funding, the faster they can restore the neighborhood, he said. "We would be able to continue on, from phase to phase."

Golden Harvest has had government contracts since it started nearly 20 years ago. It works with the state of Georgia to provide job training. It also contracts with Georgia and South Carolina agencies to distribute commodities supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food bank uses funds from the area Agency on Aging in its Brown Bag program for the elderly.

While not a religious organization, it is faith-based because most of its contributors and distribution sites are linked to churches. "We very much believe in grass-roots organizations," said Michael Firmin, Golden Harvest's executive director. "One of our goals is to empower local neighborhood groups and churches to provide for their own neighbors."

Both private and public support is needed to meet society's needs, especially if there is a business downturn, when it would "be crucial that every sector work together," he said. Golden Harvest and other faith-based nonprofits are models that work. "Why not promote this on a larger scale?"

While Aiken's Area Churches Together Serving, or ACTS, uses about $7,000 a year from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to distribute food to seniors, its board "takes a dim view of federal moneys, mainly because of the paperwork, red tape and restrictions," said Marge Glauser, executive director.

There is concern that taking federal money would alter the way the ministry goes about its mission, she said.

Miracle Making Ministries is optimistic that faith-based organizations can team with government, but there must be protections, said the Rev. Robert Williams, executive director. "We aren't willing to give over our autonomy for a few federal dollars."

Government initiatives on partnerships with faith-based organizations aren't new. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 had a charitable-choice component that allowed faith-based organizations to provide social services to government clients without hiding their religious expression or character, or losing control over hiring decisions or the way their organization was structured.

Clients were protected from proselytizing because they could refuse to use the faith-based organization's services or choose to opt out of religious participation.

While the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Justice complained last year that only four states - Indiana, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin - have significantly implemented charitable choice, critics oppose it on grounds of separation of church and state.

Some complaints have ended up in court. One faith-based service provider was sued for firing an employee who revealed she was a lesbian. Another complained that a provider pressured clients to study the Bible.

Uncharted waters around charitable choice and faith-based service providers make some non-Christian faith communities nervous.

Could some well-intentioned but misguided group overstep the line between church and state? Or could an organization become a service provider as a cover for proselytizing?

It seems vague how faith-based service providers will work, but "churches and synagogues have been in this (charity) business longer than government and will continue to be," said Rabbi Jordan Parr of Congregation Children of Israel. "If (it is) constitutional, we should all get grant writers together. If that is the way the game is going to be played, that is how to play."

Taufiq Lakhany, former president of the Islamic Society of Augusta, said area Muslims oppose faith-based service providers and prefer the current interpretation of separation of church and state. When a need arises within the Muslim community, members raise funds to cover it themselves.

Some, however, while acknowledging a chance for abuse, think faith-based service providers would be a good idea, he said. "They must have strict guidelines from Congress."

For more information, visit the Center for Public Justice Web site at www.cpjustice.org. For more information on faith-based organizations as service providers, visit www.welfareinfo.org/faithbase.htm. For more information on critics of the Bush initiative, visit the Interfaith Alliance Web site www.interfaithalliance.org.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336.