Presidential Altar Call

Bush Urges Addicts To Find Miracles At 'Faith-Based' Addiction Programs, Proposes HUD Funds For Church Construction

To Tonja and Darren Myles, the solution to drug and alcohol addiction is simple: conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.

"We believe that recovery begins at the Cross," says the website of the Myleses' "Set Free Indeed" ministry. "We rely solely on the foundation of the Word of God to break the bands of addiction."

The Myleses are not professional addiction counselors. The couple make their living by running a plumbing repair business. But their ministry received a top-level boost in January and may soon be in line for federal funding. In addition, the Healing Place Church, where the program takes place, may become eligible for federal funds to expand its Baton Rouge, La., building.

In January, the Bush administration opened two new fronts in its "faith-based" crusade a plan to subsidize religious addiction treatment services through vouchers and proposed federal rules that allow public funds to be spent on church buildings where social services are offered.

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union message, President George W. Bush earmarked $600 million in his budget for a three-year voucher program that allows addicts to choose religious programs for treatment.

"Our nation is blessed with recovery programs that do amazing work," said Bush. "One of them is found at the Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La. A man in that program said, 'God does miracles in people's lives, and you never think it could be you.' Tonight, let us bring to all Americans who struggle with drug addiction this message of hope: The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you."

As the president spoke, Tonja Myles, a former addict and prostitute, sat beaming in First Lady Laura Bush's box in the House gallery. Nearby in the audience was Henry Lozano, a Los Angeles official with Teen Challenge, another evangelical Christian drug treatment program favored by Bush.

The president packaged the addiction vouchers as part of his larger "compassionate conservative" agenda. Relying on religious language to sell the concept, Bush urged Congress to pass his faith-based initiative and "encourage acts of compassion that can transform America, one heart and one soul at a time."

Said the president, "There's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." Those words are a take-off from the chorus of the evangelical Christian song, "There is Power in the Blood," which heralds the "power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb [Jesus]."

Bush's religious rhetoric and his policy moves come as little surprise. He is a "born-again" Christian who credits religion with helping him give up heavy drinking, and apparently that experience motivates him to base federal drug treatment policy in part on conversion.

However, Bush's proposed merger of government with religion drew immediate fire from civil liberties activists.

"The president wants to fund untested, unproven programs that seek to pray away addiction," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This violates the Constitution and common sense.

"The Bush plan would entangle government with religion and jeopardize the health care needs of Americans struggling with alcohol and drug problems," Lynn continued. "Americans put a lot of money in the collection plate voluntarily, but they should not be forced to do so by the government."

Lynn noted that many religious treatment programs make conversion the primary goal of their counseling. They also discriminate in hiring staff, and many fail to win accreditation with state agencies. Such an approach can lead to legal controversy, especially if the programs are publicly funded.

Teen Challenge, a group touted by Bush, drew criticism in May 2001 when one of its top officials told a congressional panel that his organization hires only Christians and that program participants often convert to Christianity.

John Castellani, executive director of Teen Challenge International, told a House subcommittee that his group accepts non-Christians as participants. Some Jewish clients, he said, continue to embrace Judaism, but others become "completed Jews," a term evangelicals use to refer to Jewish converts.

The term is offensive to many Jewish leaders, and the comment sparked debate about whether a program such as Teen Challenge should get public funding.

Questions have also been raised about the efficiency of some faith-based treatment groups. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in February that Teen Challenge spends only one-fifth of its money on programs. The rest, the newspaper said, goes to overhead and fund-raising.

None of this seems to bother Bush administration officials.

James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that some addicts find faith-based programs better than traditional programs "and so we're trying to give people in treatment some choices."

"We recognize," said Towey, "that programs like Teen Challenge and one in Los Angeles that is based on the Torah and Judaism could not receive direct federal funds, but they may now receive vouchers."

AU's Lynn charges that Bush "seems to be on a religious crusade and that's not the role of the president."

Three weeks prior to the State of the Union speech, the Bush administration unveiled proposed changes in regulations governing federal housing funds to allow for more faith-based aid.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Jan. 6 that it is considering a new rule that would allow the use of public funds for construction and maintenance of buildings that are used for both worship and social services. The amount of federal funding could not exceed the portion of the facility's cost that is used for social services.

A HUD official told Religion News Service that the change would mean that a church could construct a building that would offer both shelter for the homeless and a chapel. The official said HUD field staff would determine a formula so that federal grant money would be used only for the social service and not the religious purpose.

But some religious leaders said that kind of line-drawing would be difficult.

The Rev. Bob Abstein of St. George's Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tenn., told The Tennessean, "This is a dangerous trend that will blur the lines of separation of church and state. It is virtually impossible to divide secular and sacred space inside a church or synagogue. All of the activities are about the mission and ministry of that institution."

Nonetheless, the plan drew praise from the Religious Right.

The Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition told RNS, "This is getting federal aid to the front lines. President Bush's effort is on target and the American people appreciate this common-sense approach to getting the biggest and most compassionate bang for the federal bucks."

But AU's Lynn said Americans United attorneys will advise HUD to drop the controversial scheme during the comment period that ends March 7.

"This is taxpayer funding for the expansion of churches and clearly a violation of the division between church and state," Lynn told the Associated Press. "It's utterly impossible to monitor the use of such funds."

If the administration proceeds with the proposal, he added, it will almost certainly wind up in court.

Meanwhile, members of Congress are also dealing with faith-based funding. On Feb. 5, the Senate Finance Committee approved the tax section of the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act the so-called CARE Act. The measure would give incentives for donations to charities.

To avoid controversy, the panel did not include divisive provisions that would grant religious groups exemptions from requirements applied to other grantees. For example, some senators are seeking a provision that would allow faith-based groups to post unlimited amounts of icons and scriptures at publicly funded programs.

Observers say U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and other advocates of the Bush faith-based initiative will likely try to add anti-separationist language to the measure when it comes to the floor. (As Church & State went to press, no timetable for a vote had been announced, but action was expected on the Senate floor soon. The House has yet to take up the issue this session.)