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Tuesday April 3, 2001

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Most welfare plans pass on charity

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Churches and other religious organizations have shown little enthusiasm for a 1996 federal law that invited them into the competition for government welfare dollars, and states have done little to promote the program, a 50-state Associated Press survey shows.

Just five states have aggressively used "charitable choice," which President Bush hopes to expand to programs across government, and nearly two-thirds of states have bypassed the opportunity altogether, the survey found.

"It's been available for a long time. Nobody's jumping on the bandwagon," said Kris Foster of Hawaii's welfare department, which has not awarded any contracts to religious groups under the 1996 law.

Even Bush's health and human services secretary, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, acknowledges the idea has been a tough sell. Only one religious program in Wisconsin has received government money to help people on welfare.

"We opened it up, and we didn't have as many applications as we thought there would be," Thompson said. "We didn't pursue it any more. We made it available."

First adopted in 1996 as part of the national overhaul of welfare law, charitable choice was meant to open government programs to religious groups not traditionally eligible for funding. It does not require states to issue new contracts or set aside any money. It lets such groups receive tax dollars without having to change their predominantly religious character.

For instance, the law allowed organizations to continue displaying religious symbols and to consider religion in hiring workers. Programs may include religious content, but they can't use government money to promote or require those they are helping to participate in religion. Later, Congress extended the concept to federal drug treatment and community development programs.

But charitable choice attracted little attention until this year, when Bush proposed a major expansion. He's met stiff opposition from a diverse group of religious and secular groups, and the proposal faces a tougher trip through Congress this time. For decades, states have been contracting with secular groups with religious ties, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services. Congregations could get government contracts by setting up secular affiliates to run day care, shelters and other programs.

This arrangement has allowed both sides to bypass misgivings about government financing religion, and these contracts continue across the country.

Backers hoped that charitable choice would create a groundswell of interest from a new set of religious groups that never had considered applying for such aid or had been shunned.

But almost five years later, the AP survey found 31 states and the District of Columbia have awarded no government welfare contracts to religious groups that would not have been eligible otherwise.

An additional 14 states report sporadic use of charitable choice - a handful of contracts at most.

Just five states - Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Texas - have embraced it, spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

"We recognized very early that churches held a very valuable piece of the puzzle," said Joel Potts, Ohio's welfare reform coordinator, who estimates his state has directed more than $10 million to religious contractors. With Bush as governor, Texas extended charitable choice to state programs and aggressively sought out new contracts.

That's not typical, said most state officials.

California has "very few" contracts, a state study found. In New York, officials say there's been some interest but no contracts. In Georgia, officials say they've declined to use the law because it conflicts with the state constitution's prohibition against mixing church and state.

State officials and welfare experts cite several reasons for the slow start to charitable choice, which allows religious groups to receive money directly:

Congregations are largely unaware of the new opportunity. In 1998, a national survey of congregations found that only 25 percent had even heard of charitable choice. And in Philadelphia, a survey of more than 1,000 congregations found just 7 percent knew what it was and 2 percent were considering applying for government money.

Religious groups remain wary of government money - fearful they will become burdened by regulations that could restrict their religious practices. "A large number are worried the government wants to take over the church," said Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania, who directed the Philadelphia survey. "It's 'Why is the government so interested in the church all of a sudden?' There's suspicion here."

It's hard for new players to break into government contracting. Getting government money involves knowing when the money is available, where to find the application and a myriad of other details. Congregations often don't have the experience or lobbyists like major federal contractors.

Many contracts don't pay until after the services are provided, meaning new organizations must have enough of their own money to get started.

A few states have worked to overcome the obstacles. Ohio and Indiana have held informational meetings around their states to educate religious organizations about how to apply for government grants, and they offer technical assistance for groups that need help with applications.

It's not easy, said Paul Ladd, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which has not awarded any contracts under charitable choice.

"Religious groups and government are naturally suspicious of one another," he said. "It's sort of a matter of each side convincing the other we're not out to get you or bonk you over the head and make you do it our way or the highway."