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Photograph by Chris Revell

A More Perfect Union: Barb Dawson directs Emmanuel Baptist Church's Family Life Center, which has received a quarter-million-dollar subsidy from the state. Dawson says the San Jose church tries to keep religion out of its social programs.

Leap of Faith

Got God? Want some money? Go ask the California Legislature, which has been coughing up cash for religious charities as long as they don't say the G-word while spending it.

By Allie Gottlieb

PURISTS ARE wrong about freedom from religion. The fact that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" doesn't mean the government can't pay God-fearing do-gooders to fight poverty and joblessness. Presidential speeches, judicial appointments, Supreme Court rulings and even the passive permission of church-state separatists all debunk that myth.

In fact, the concept is so wildly popular right now that not only is the Republican-heavy federal government funding faith-based groups but California has spent $18 million on Gov. Gray Davis' Faith-Based Initiative under the popular catch-all of saving money.

A Pepperdine University study released last year that surveyed Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, found that half of all faith-based welfare-to-work programs currently receive taxpayer support, and few are toning down their religious activity, even though the Constitution requires it. Furthermore, the state is not adequately checking up on them.

"Some of these organizations who are new to the whole realm of the use of public funds are going to not abide by regulations or not have a full understanding of what they're supposed to do and not do," says Carol Velarde, California legislative liaison for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "And if no one's looking, what's to stop them from [breaking the rules]?"

Controlling God

Barb Dawson would argue that it's not an issue. "We don't teach about God in the program," says Dawson, director of the Emmanuel Baptist Church's nonprofit Family Life Center in San Jose, which holds classes in computer skills and English as a second language using a $268,000 grant from the state. The two classrooms used for the state-subsidized classes are the only ones in the building that display nothing religious, and Dawson is quick with the reason: "We can't do that, because we have to remember that there is a line between church and state."

But it's a difficult line to maintain, particularly with a church next door and a Christian school down the hall. Dawson navigates the line, she says, by telling people who show up for state-funded job-training classes two evenings a week to take the elevator. That way they avoid walking pass the signs like the one that reads, "God keeps his promises," painted by students. The elevator happened to be broken the day Metro met with Dawson, so dodging the hallway was out of the question.

Dawson and other recipients of public funding know that, legally, public money can go to faith-based programs only if they are nonprofit agencies devoid of proselytization. Faith-based funding allows for nonprofit community organizations, including faith-based and secular organizations, but specifically excludes "pervasively sectarian institutions."

"I knew that they wouldn't give us a grant just by saying that we were a Christian school and we needed the money," Dawson says of securing her first publicly funded grant. "So I showed them that the community would benefit."

But constitutional purists doubt the possibility of complete separation, and dispute whether any social benefit is worth the potential price of church-state crossover.

"If you've got an organization that has been founded on faith, and this is what they believe is the only way to turn people's life around ... then it's very hard to imagine that they can separate that out from how to deliver services," says Velarde, whose group opposes federal efforts to expand programs that offer financial support for religion.

Fred Blum, a San Francisco attorney who represented the American Jewish Congress during the sole legal challenge waged (but subsequently dropped) against the initiative, comes down harder. "I think it ... creates an excuse for why the government is not providing the services. And this is what government is for," he says. "Regardless of whether it's constitutional, it's bad public policy. In my mind, the only way you can say it's constitutional is by a wink and a nod."

Religion Rules

What supposedly preserves the constitutional integrity of the church-state relationship (and assures that no Jim Jones or David Koresh types sneak into taxpayers' pockets) is the government's selectivity in choosing programs. Both the federal government and state tout a thoroughness in educating the religious organizations that run them--and a program for checking up to make sure they are in compliance.

But in California, where the budget has included a line item for faith-based organizations since 2001, the understanding, explanation and monitoring of the rules remains ambiguous. The state Legislature, acting on concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, scrambled to add clarifying language to this season's pending budget that says that the government is not allowed to fund "pervasively sectarian organizations," or those that discriminate in hiring, something privately funded religious groups can legally do, but the state cannot.

The term "proselytize" has also come under scrutiny.

"[The definition of "proselytizing"] depends on the discretion of local individuals," says Pepperdine University faculty member and study author Stephen Monsma. "[The monitors] don't ask a lot of questions. ... Often at a local level it is sort of a don't ask don't tell policy. ... I would feel more comfortable if the rules were spelled out more clearly," he adds.

When Davis first launched the initiative in August 2000 to support employment programs run by churches and other religious organizations, the effort wasn't entirely thought out and hit a roadblock. The American Jewish Congress filed a lawsuit against the state for violating the constitution with the initiative. Then, in 2001, Davis modified the initiative to include secular community groups, a move prompted by complaints from the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Gia Daniller, the council's director of legislative affairs and government relations.

"It's a fine line, and that's the problem," Daniller says about the state's faith-based funding. "There are purists who say it shouldn't be done. However, our official position is that look, federal law is clearly allowing this. So let's create a balance so people are getting the services they need without the state funding coercive activity. It's a hard balancing act."

Nevertheless, the state has now spent roughly $18 million through what's now called the Community and Faith-Based Initiative, funding about 50 programs in an effort to serve "the hardest to reach" parolees, recovering addicts, homeless people and others who may trust a church before a government welfare agency.

For the Love of God

Just beyond Seminary Avenue in Oakland sits the Men of Valor Academy, owned and operated by the East Bay's largest church, Acts Full Gospel Church. The main church, an unimposing building straddling International Boulevard in East Oakland, is the former site of the 1960s' Black Panther headquarters.

"This program represents hope for 100 young men who now have another chance for a productive life in their communities," Gov. Davis stated in an April 14 press release announcing a half-million-dollar grant for the academy.

Thanks to the governor's faith-based funding, Men of Valor is now expanding its vocational program by adding more classes aimed at getting clients GEDs, or high school diplomas, and teaching basic communication and business skills.

The academy rescued Jerry Oliver from his 20-year tug-of-war with crack. Now he earns a paycheck watching more than 30 men between the ages of 18 and 35 who are trying to reinvent their lives.

"I think God placed me here for a reason," says Oliver, a warehouse supervisor turned counselor who ultimately wants to own a trucking company. He leads the way to an indoor construction site, a wooden skeleton that stands as the start of the new job-training area. The structure sits within an expansive room lit by diffused sunlight that nudges through the windows. Bold writing on one wall of the surrounding room reads, "Jesus Christ is Lord, taking Oakland for Him."

Across the basketball courts and down the hall in the sanctuary, where academy residents check in every morning at 7, a chalkboard presumably used last during Bible Study, which is also held in the room, explains, "You must be born again of the water and of the spirit to enter into the kingdom of heaven."

When asked whether faith filters into his counseling, Oliver responds, "You can't force [religion] on a person." But he adds, "A higher power is crucial to your success."

A Model Program?

State officials were reluctant to discuss the issue of potential religious spillover into government-funded programs. State Health and Human Services Agency Associate Secretary Earl Johnson, who is in charge of implementing the initiative, says that unlike Bush's controversial federal campaign to bolster religious endeavors, everyone loves Davis' initiative.

He stresses the difference at the state level by calling it "a partnership" that doesn't allow churches too much control. "Other states and the federal government are talking to us about how we've implemented our program so that they could learn the best practices," he boasts.

Johnson notes that some attorneys opposed the initiative at first but declines to elaborate and adds that skeptics eventually ended up supporting it. He mentions UC-Davis professor Alan Brownstein, who he says had concerns but ended up joining the team as a legal adviser to the governor.

Brownstein recalls his support with less enthusiasm. "As to my role in advising the governor's staff on this issue," he writes in an email to Metro while on sabbatical in Australia, "I have been out of the loop for the last two years."

The effectiveness of faith-based social services compared to secular programs also remains unknown. But researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University released a study in May that found clients of faith-based programs ended up making less money than people who went to secular agencies for job training, according to the Washington Post.

State officials boast that the program has served 7,000 people "who would otherwise not be reached," as a recent press release notes. But, when asked, they offer no reports or documentation to prove the statement. At this point, it's unclear how many people walk in the door seeking job skills and walk out converted. For its $18 million investment, the state says it is getting a bargain. However, according to the legislative analyst, no figures are available on what the savings really are, and Johnson was unable to provide any financial analysis to Metro.

The concern for some is not knowing how well the state polices its programs.

"It all comes down to how they're monitored, and that's really hard to do. You really have to have an army of people making what should be unannounced visits and an independent auditor should be monitoring funds," Velarde says.

Nick Summerfield, the state's Employment Development Department manager in charge of monitoring faith-based programs, estimates that his agents visit each recipient twice a month to make sure they don't preach during a Microsoft Word lesson. "There's a reasonableness factor that's included," he responds when asked whether signs about God are permitted. "As adults we're exposed to all kinds of remarks. ... Praise the Lord ... Allah ... are those things proselytizing us? I don't think so. But those are all the grayness of the issue. And it's a complicated issue."

Guardian Evangelist

Faith-based funding at the federal level

RELIGIOUS GROUPS have a best friend in the federal government. In broad daylight, born-again Christian President George W. Bush dived into his presidency advertising his intent to marry church and state. A former choirboy, Bush gives speeches and quotes to reporters about eradicating his binge drinking habit through Bible study during the summer of 1986. Newsweek ran a cover story in March titled "Bush and God," calling this president "the most resolutely faith-based" of all in modern times.

The moniker seems reasonable. Once elected, Bush immediately proclaimed a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. By executive order, he also created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to disseminate federal funds to sectarian groups and dismantle barriers between the two, and he told several federal agencies to join the mission.

He appointed one of the religious right's top leaders, John Ashcroft, to the U.S. attorney general's post. (As a senator during Bill Clinton's presidency Ashcroft proposed an amendment to the 1996 welfare reform legislation to allow the federal government to fund faith-based groups.) Among others, Bush nominated Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, who champions the right to post the Ten Commandments in court, for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But if Bush is the most religious modern president, California's Gov. Gray Davis certainly deserves recognition for being one of the most surprising faith-based-funding cheerleaders--Davis, the Democratic head of a state where 44 percent of voters registered as Democrats (compared to 35 percent Republican and 15 percent "decline to state"). He leads a Legislature whose Assembly just voted this month to pass what would be the country's second-most-progressive state law expanding gay domestic union rights (after Vermont's civil union law).

Yet Davis has quietly outlegislated the Republican president in the faith-based arena. When Bush was still trying to convince legislators to fund church groups with a bill that ultimately died in the Senate, Davis was already handing out money locally. The U.S. Senate just got around to passing a consensus (read: watered-down) version of Bush's CARE Act on April 9, giving tax breaks to encourage people to donate to charities. The bill, which still needs House approval but is expected to become law, also awards cash to religious and nonreligious agencies that want to start offering social services. Meanwhile, two years ago, Davis, who is Catholic, convinced the California Senate to set aside state funds for religious groups as a line item in the budget.

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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