Religious leaders seek role in welfare reform Coalition intends to remind governors of 'charitable choice'


In an effort to make use of a little-known provision in the law that overhauled welfare, a group of Christian leaders plans to ask the nation's governors Tuesday to collaborate with churches in creating anti-poverty programs and to redirect federal welfare money to church-based initiatives.

The welfare law that was passed last year included a provision called "charitable choice," intended to encourage states to involve local religious groups in revising welfare programs.

The provision allows so-called faith-based groups to receive government money without having to hide or compromise their religious character.

But religious leaders say few states have begun charitable choice, either because they are unaware of it or because they fear that such church-state entanglements could be unconstitutional.

Resistance encountered

"From the government side, there have been all these objections to church-state cooperation," said Jim Wallis, convener of Call to Renewal, a coalition of religious leaders that is contacting the governors.

"Some people are just terribly nervous about churches. Even businesses and foundations that don't have those restrictions, they're nervous, too."

When Congress voted to change the welfare system, the religious community was deeply divided. Many liberal and mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church opposed the overhaul. Many conservative evangelical churches supported it.

Now that the retooling is under way, Wallis said, Call to Renewal has united religious leaders who had been at odds in a bid to work with governments, businesses and community organizations to find "solutions" to poverty.

Leaders of Call to Renewal say they are promoting not the traditional church charity programs, but initiatives that would shift welfare recipients to self-sufficiency. Call to Renewal and World Vision, a Christian aid group, are compiling a directory of such initiatives.

Officials say they expect that nearly 40 leaders from Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, black and Hispanic churches will sign the letter that Call to Renewal plans to issue to the governors.

"Call to Renewal," the letter says, "invites you to 'think outside the box' and partner with the religious community in new efforts to end poverty."

Under charitable choice, states may contract with nongovernmental and religious organizations to provide social services such as job training, high school equivalency programs, courses in English as a second language, nutrition programs, homes for unmarried mothers and drug and alcohol treatment.

Retaining religious character

The religious groups have a right to retain their religious character by displaying religious symbols or using religious criteria in selecting employees.

Under the provision, religious groups that receive government money are not supposed to evangelize actively or discriminate against welfare recipients who do not share the group's beliefs.

A recipient who objects to receiving services from a church or religious group is supposed to be given the option of receiving services from another organization.

Stanley Carlson-Thies, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Justice, a Christian policy research group in Annapolis, is tracking the effects of charitable choice. He said he has seen such church-government collaboration in Texas, Indiana and Michigan.

In some counties, congregations have "adopted" families who are making the transition from welfare to work.

Many state welfare directors, Carlson-Thies said, are too overwhelmed with the changing system to pay much attention to charitable choice.

"Church people tell me they went and talked to their local or state welfare directors, and they hadn't even heard of charitable choice," he said. "I hear that a lot."

Critics of charitable choice say it is not possible to ensure that the participants in such programs are not subject to proselytizing.

"It will be impossible for this not to essentially pay for evangelism," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "even though the statute says it can't happen. There is not going to be the kind of close monitoring to make sure evangelism doesn't happen."

The provision has not been challenged in the courts. Lynn said his group was hiring a lawyer to litigate whenever religious organizations overstep the restraints of the new law.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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