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Rules for Religious Charities Drawing Fire

New White House regulations could force needy people seeking help from religious charities to sit through religious services before they can receive aid, Jewish civil-rights groups are charging.

The civil rights groups say the new rules, which bar charities from forcing recipients of government aid to participate “actively” in activities such as reciting prayers, do not have any provisions prohibiting religious charities from requiring their clients to listen to or sit through religious prayers or speeches in order to receive federally funded services.

“It’s the government underwriting forced proselytization as a condition for vulnerable people to get social services to which they are entitled,” said Marc Stern, legal affairs director of the American Jewish Congress. “The regulations don’t have a guarantee against forced passive participation in a religious exercise.”

The sweeping regulations, announced last week, are the broadest push so far for President Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” which seeks to increase access to federal funding for religious social service agencies. The rules, issued as an executive order that circumvented Congress, give religious organizations access to almost $30 billion in federal money. Orthodox groups endorsed the move last week, but liberal Jewish civil rights organizations harshly criticized the rules as another administration attempt to lower the wall separating church and state. The rules also allow faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

Among the groups raising objections to various aspects of the rules are the American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.

The lack of safeguards against requiring passive involvement in religious activities is “a very real concern,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center.

Pelavin described a hypothetical scenario in which a federally funded soup kitchen may require a hungry client to listen to a prayer offered at the table before eating. “That is deeply disturbing, the idea that someone has to sit through a prayer they might find anathema before receiving government social services,” he said.

“By not engaging Congress in this issue, the administration seems to be signaling that it’s not interested in finding solutions to some of these questions, but rather barreling ahead,” Pelavin continued. “It’s a very clear statement from the administration that they’re going to do what they want to do when they want to do it.”

But Jim Towey, director of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, defended the rules. “When you talk to the poor who come from the street the least of their problems is hearing a prayer in a soup kitchen,” he said. “These are the concerns of activists who want to sanitize the public square of any possible religious influence, and further they want to force faith-based providers to completely secularize their operation.”

The government regulations include some language prohibiting discrimination based on a recipient’s “refusal to actively participate in a religious service” and on the basis of “religion and religious belief.” The rules mention objections raised by opponents but conclude that “language in the rule prohibiting faith-based organizations from requiring program beneficiaries to participate in religious activities is sufficiently explicit.”

Critics say the language does not go far enough. “There are some safeguards provided for,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel of the AJCommittee. “But there is always the problem that people can be made to feel they ought to be participating or sitting through religious activities they don’t want to be present for.”

“There are a number of programs funded at the state level where objections have been raised about what is expected of people receiving social services,” Foltin said. Stern of the AJCongress raised the same objection to a grant application circulated by the Department of Labor for a mentoring program for youths with disabilities.

But a Labor Department official defended the grant, saying it requires charities to sign a certification barring religious discrimination. “If I’m offering computer-training classes through the grant and in addition the church offers lunch-hour Bible study, I cannot condition computer training on a person’s” decision whether or not to go to Bible class, said Brent Orrell, director of the department’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“Good enough,” Stern retorted. “But what if before the computer class itself you have Bible comments or a prayer, or something.”

The new regulations define the criteria for faith-based organizations competing for $8 billion in grants that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will make available for social services delivered by nongovernmental institutions. The White House also announced that the Department of Health and Human Services completed rules giving religious groups access to almost $20 billion in grants. It also announced that the service department awarded $30.5 million to 81 organizations that will use the money to provide services or make grants to religious charities and community organizations in 45 states. The money is from the Compassion Capital Fund, which Bush created. Last year, $24 million was awarded.

Jewish groups took issue with the principle of acting “without congressional authority to facilitate the distribution of federal funds to houses of worship and other sectarian institutions,” in the words of the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman.

Jewish organizations also criticized the new rules for allowing faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion and for permitting taxpayer dollars to be channeled to religious entities for construction, although not for construction or rehabilitation of a “principal place of worship.”

Stern said he was disappointed that the White House declined to address the questions and comments that AJCongress and other Jewish groups raised when the regulations were first presented in March. One such concern articulated by the groups, Stern said, was that equality be ensured for Jews and Jewish institutions in giving and receiving federally funded social services. Another was ensuring the availability of a viable secular alternative to the service provided by a religious organization. “There were specific points that we made,” Stern said, which the White House did note in its report on the new executive orders, “but these questions were either not answered or answered in ways that say: ‘We are not going to tell religious groups what they can or cannot do.’”

  • With Reporting by Ori Nir in Washington*

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