President George W. Bush and other boosters of the "faith-based initiative" insist that the effort is intended to create a "level playing field" between religious and non-religious groups.
But new evidence indicates that the faith-based initiative isn't about a level playing field at all. It's about tilting the field dramatically in favor of religious groups.
Consider what happened to the Western Massachusetts Shelter for Homeless Veterans. Last year, the Northampton shelter lost more than $400,000 in federal funding. Despite the shelter's long and proven track record of serving veterans, the money, shelter officials were told, would go to religious groups instead.
The shelter got the money back this year but only after its director, John Downing, emphasized the religious and spiritual services the facility provides. Downing felt playing up the religious component would make the center more attractive to the federal government, and he was right.
Not far away in Rhode Island, several local service organizations that have been serving their communities for years have been denied federal funding. Why? The money is going to faith-based organizations instead even though the religious groups, as one local newspaper put it, "have no record of success."
The Corporation for National and Community Service has allocated $324,000 in Americorps funding for staffing at four daycare centers run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
But The Children's Crusade, a mentoring program that has won national honors, lost all its budget of half a million dollars. The group had hoped to partner 35 young adults with poor minority children. That won't be happening now.
Another group, City Year Rhode Island, which coordinates community service programs for youngsters, lost half of its entire budget. Group leaders said they would have to scale back programs.
Bush, White House "faith czar" James Towey and others claim that their goal is to provide effective services. If that is so, then why are they draining money away from time-tested providers and funneling it toward religious groups, many of which are unproven in this area?
Social-service providers are clearly getting the message that they have a better shot at a federal grant if they emphasize a religious component. These agency leaders know exactly what is going on: The administration doesn't want a level-playing field; it is biased toward religious providers.
Bush and his backers are careful to dress this up for public consumption. They never come out and say that they are discriminating in favor of religious groups. Instead, they claim that religious groups are more effective than their secular counterparts.
But no objective data backs up this claim. It is simply accepted as gospel by the administration and repeated over and over again because they have a built-in bias toward "faith-based" groups.
When science doesn't bolster their predetermined beliefs, faith-based boosters simply change the science. In June, Religious Right leader Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship trumpeted claims that its InnerChange program reduced recidivism rates among prisoners. A press release went out, and administration officials yelled "hallelujah," backed by the predictable amen chorus from The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
But there was one problem: A public policy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles analyzed the data and found that InnerChange had not reduced the recidivism rates. In fact, inmates in InnerChange had returned to prison at a slightly higher rate than a control group! Colson's group did not like this result, so it cooked the data.
So far, this hasn't fazed supporters of religious programs in prison. Their bias in favor of this approach makes them immune to contrary data.
Is the administration's tilt toward faith-based funding making a difference in the lives of people? Absolutely but not a positive one. It's bad enough that this new approach violates church-state separation. What it is doing to people on the ground people who need effective services is also troubling.
In Massachusetts, homeless veterans, many of them struggling with alcoholism, faced the possibility of having nowhere to go but the streets. One man, Ennis Ricketts, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the Associated Press, "I came close to having no place to go. I probably would've ended up back on substances and on the streets."
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) stopped in at the shelter to announce that the funding was being restored. Neal was glad to see the money returned, but he expressed concern for the future.
"I hope we never find ourselves asking what religion veterans are when they apply for services," he said.
Yet that seems to be exactly where we are headed. The administration's "faith first" bias puts the least fortunate among us in a difficult spot. It's clear that the new preference for funding religious groups is going to leave those running non-religious programs out in the cold; thus, if you're in need of help, you'd better be prepared to go to church, listen to a sermon or say some prayers.
The next time you hear an administration official promoting faith-based services, remember what's really going on. It's not about ending unequal treatment or leveling playing fields. The goal is preferential treatment for religious groups with your tax dollars paying the way.