Conference looks at pros, cons of faith-based initiative

Under initiative, state would give religious groups chance for social services grants

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Social service providers and religious groups attended a conference Tuesday to discuss President Bush's faith-based initiative and how it might work in Alaska.

While conference participants spoke enthusiastically about the initiative, concerns were raised by the Alaska Civil Liberties Union and others that it will lead to the crumbling of the separation between church and state.

"Keep the church out of government affairs and keep the government out of church affairs," said Al Sundquist, president of the Alaska chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The conference was hosted by the Southcentral Foundation, which provides services to 40,000 clients, including those in 55 villages.

The initiative will help charitable groups compete for government funds, said Katherine Gottlieb, the foundation's president and CEO. A little less than half of the foundation's $100 million annual budget comes from the federal government.

As part of the initiative, the state intends to give faith-based organizations the same chance as secular agencies to compete for grants.

Keynote speaker Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who in June established an 18-member panel aimed at increasing the role of faith-based organizations in providing social services in Alaska, said the initiative doesn't violate the separation between church and state.

"Government has always been involved in religious activities," he said. "It doesn't say we can't encourage people to engage in religious activities."

Leman, however, said he was concerned how the initiative could affect the relationship between church and state.

"My greatest concern is that government will try to assert too much influence over religious organizations," he said.

Steven Green, director of the Center for Law and Government at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., said the initiative threatens the barrier between church and state, and could lead to bias favoring Christians.

"What the president is promising is faith-infused services," Green said, at a news conference arranged by the ACLU. "When the government gets behind religion, generally it tends to favor one faith over others."

Concerns over the separation between church and state have hobbled the Bush initiative, which began as an effort to open government programs to churches, synagogues and other religious organizations.

The Senate passed scaled-back legislation that provides a variety of tax breaks for charity donations and an additional $1.3 billion over two years for the Social Services Block Grant program. The House has agreed to go along with the Senate bill. However, its bill includes no increase for the program.

If the initiative did result in an infusion of government money, it would allow Alaska Christian Ministries to expand its day camp for city children from one school to half a dozen, said Eileen Starr, the group's executive director.

The program this spring gave 207 children at Mountain View Elementary School in Anchorage a place to learn, play and "build character," Starr said. The program is supported entirely by local businesses.

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