The list of “faith-based” initiatives sponsored by the Bush administration continues to grow. In January, the Department of Health and Human Services released federal funds to religious groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania to promote marriage. Days afterward, the Bush administration proposed releasing federal housing money to religious groups to erect or refurbish buildings where religious services are held.
That adds to the $30 million HHS doled out to numerous groups back in October from the “Compassion Capital Fund” (see “Blessing for Whom?” November 25). Religious groups receiving funding included Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing International and the National Center for Faith Based Initiative [sic], a local ministry in West Palm Beach, Florida. The latter describes itself as working to create wealth and “empower our people to steward that wealth for the purposes of the kingdom.” Last July, more than $1 billion in federal grants was made available to religious groups that sponsor after-school programs, despite charges that these groups discriminate in hiring based on religion.
All this may not bode well for the recipients of such religious services, according to a recent report from Bush’s home state. The report, “The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years,” examines the programs begun by Bush when he was governor. The report is sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an alliance of 7,500 religious and community leaders.
In 1996, Texas appointed an almost entirely Christian commission to eliminate regulations that prevented faith-based providers from receiving government funds. Then Governor Bush pushed agencies to change policies and eliminate licensing and inspection requirements for religious charities, and Texas became the first state to implement taxpayer-funded religious services.
After five years of such experimentation, Texas discovered many serious flaws:After Texas’ Department of Protective and Regulatory Services stopped regulating childcare providers, rates of confirmed abuse and neglect at the religious facilities rose quickly and are now 25 times higher than at state-licensed facilities. Religious facilities had a 75 percent complaint rate, compared to 5.4 percent at state-licensed facilities. Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse inspectors presented Teen Challenge, a Christian residential drug treatment program and one of Bush’s highly-touted models, with a 49-page list of violations of state regulations. Teen Challenge said its mission was “to evangelize people” and “initiate the discipleship process to the point where students can function as Christians … applying spiritually motivated Bible principles.” The program had no credentialed counselors, no chemical dependency services, failed to inform clients of their rights, and was found to be illegally handling medications. Jobs Partnership’s stated mission was to help clients “find employment through a relationship with Jesus Christ.” The group’s budget and curriculum show that $8,000 of state money was used to buy Bibles and that the program focused primarily on Bible study. A district court found use of the state funds unconstitutional because they were used for religious purposes, and also said the state had violated clients’ religious freedom by not providing a secular alternative. The only other job training program in the area was located in the next county. The Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, run by religious and crime-fighting Texas conservatives, was given $1.5 million in state funds for a religious-sponsored job training program that required “total surrender to Christ.” IRFFR beat out a Lockheed Martin and University of Texas-sponsored program in competition for the funding, despite the fact that the university program had a job placement rate almost 300 times greater than IRFFR’s. Bypassing public debate, the Department of Criminal Justice used $1.5 million to fund the Inner Change prison pre-release program, a “Christ-centered, bible-based” program sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson. The program, which proposes to encourage “the spiritual and moral regeneration” of offenders and create respect for “God’s law,” received funding despite a lack of evidence that the program reduces recidivism.
Texas’ faith-based program created so many problems that, in 2001, the Texas legislature chose not to renew the state’s accreditation program for church-run childcare providers.
Now, the religious-sponsored rollback of state licensing and oversight appears to be lessening. Through October, only eight religious-supported childcare programs and 129 Christian chemical-dependency recovery programs had requested exemption from state licensing. More than 2,000 childcare centers and 900 chemical dependency programs maintain state licensing.
Despite failures in Texas, Bush continues to push his federal faith-based initiative, largely through the use of presidential orders that circumvent congressional debate. “As the nation considers this public policy possibility,” says Ashley McIlvain, political director for TFN, “Texas already has a record with these policies. We know that faith-based initiatives violate the religious freedom of people in need. In Texas, our record shows that the faith-based initiative also puts people in danger.”