ATLANTA - Times are uncertain at the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
The massive social service agency is rudderless, having lost its commissioner and the head of its child-protection division after the recent deaths of two children who were under state supervision.
Those aren't the only leadership changes at the department, which has an annual budget of nearly $1.4 billion, one of the largest in state government.
First-year Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue overhauled the agency's policy-making board in a swearing-in ceremony last month, installing six members.
The newcomers include a lay minister, a Republican activist who has pushed for more public funding of faith-based organizations, a designer of abstinence-based sex-education curricula and a former GOP lawmaker who has been active in the legislative fight against abortion.
Though that might sound like an appealing roster to the religious conservatives who form the backbone of the state Republican Party, it worries Democrats and advocates for those who rely on the DHR for health and welfare services.
"Why is the governor politicizing the DHR board?" asked Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "The welfare of children is too important to turn into a partisan battle."
But to the new members, what they bring to the board ideologically is less important than how they use the opportunity for public service.
"Everyone brings a philosophy to government," said Vernadette Ramirez Broyles, of Norcross, a lawyer and one-time Republican candidate for secretary of state who belongs to a task force on faith-based initiatives. "Regardless of philosophy, our viewpoint is to protect the most vulnerable communities."
Religious conservatives were delighted with Mr. Perdue's appointments.
Having struggled in vain for years to persuade the General Assembly to support their agenda, they see the reconstituted DHR board as an opportunity to achieve through policy reforms what they haven't been able to accomplish legislatively.
"At least, we will be heard, and our philosophy will be expressed at their meetings," said Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, the secretary of the House Republican Caucus. "We will have advocates from the inside."
Ms. Burmeister has been active in the Legislature in the push to allow religious groups to use state money to help the needy. That effort got a boost last week when Mr. Perdue announced that he will ask the General Assembly to amend the Georgia Constitution to permit state funding of faith-based charitable activities.
There already are numerous examples of state contracts with religious organizations for social-services programs, including many through the DHR.
Clint Smith, the chairman of the Georgia Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Task Force, said he hopes the new board will look for more opportunities for such partnerships.
"There could be great potential to work with the faith community on preventing alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence," said Mr. Smith, a former Republican legislator from Gainesville.
Likewise, supporters of an abstinence approach to sex education see an advocate in the new board's chairman, Bruce Cook, of Atlanta. He is the founder and CEO of Choosing the Best Publishing, which designs abstinence-based sex-education curricula.
"Pills sometimes fail. Condoms sometimes fail," said Anne Mueller, of Savannah, another new board member and a former legislator known under the Gold Dome as a staunch opponent of abortion.
"The only absolute is (abstinence). If (abstinence education) keeps one boy or girl from having premarital sex, it's worth it."
But Jeff Graham, the executive director of the Atlanta-based AIDS Survival Project, is concerned that putting more emphasis on abstinence would hurt DHR's ability to fight the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"If 'Just Say No' worked, I don't think we'd have the problems we do," he said. "And when you say abstinence until marriage, you're leaving out the entire gay and lesbian community, who don't have that option."
Advocates for people living with HIV and AIDS also were worried that the new board members' strong religious convictions might affect their support for funding of AIDS programs.
They were encouraged late last week, though, when DHR officials announced the board, working with outgoing Commissioner Jim Martin, had decided not to go forward with plans to cut $2.5 million from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
"We all get on the same side of the table when we see there's people in need," Mr. Cook said. "We need to be efficient, but we also need to be caring."
For now, even Mr. Perdue's political opponents are willing to give the new board members a chance to prove that they can separate their religious beliefs from their public duties to the DHR.
"I'll wait and see whether they can look at the issues - not their personal world," said Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, the chairwoman of the House budget subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency.
For his part, Mr. Perdue doesn't see any need for conflict.
He says the new board members "have genuine desire to provide quality services," said Derrick Dickey, a spokesman for the governor.
"Governor Perdue feels that persons' deeply held religious convictions should not disqualify them from public service."
The board isn't likely to tip its hand soon. Mr. Cook said hiring a new commissioner and child-protection director, and making responsible budget cuts take precedence over any changes in policy board members might want to make.
"That's level one," he said. "After we get through that, we can look at policy issues."
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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