"Charitable Choice," the provision allowing such groups to seek federal funding to offer social services, was part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act signed by President Bill Clinton. But it wasn't until 2001, when President George W. Bush set up the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, that the concept gained significant momentum.
To date, 32 states have set up their own offices. Utah's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, conceived almost two years ago, remains in its infancy.
Gordon Walker, director of Utah's Division of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the fledgling office, hopes a grant will help develop the one-person office now directed by his deputy, Katherine Smith. The ultimate goal: to "level the playing field" by providing organizations with training and technical assistance.
In October, Walker will find out if the office has scored $500,000 from the federal Compassion Capital Fund, which the state would match with $125,000. He and Smith want to help Utah nonprofits - faith-based and otherwise - get what they need to do what they do best.
"We're not in the service business," Walker said. "We help others to deliver services. . . . And we need to rely on [them] in the state because they are the true champions in providing great services."
Money with strings
Even if the money comes through, a question remains as to the level of interest in Utah's faith-based circles.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the statewide giant in the welfare business, doesn't need the financial help. Nor does it want the strings attached to government dollars: mandatory religious programming is prohibited, as well as proselytizing and religious discrimination in hiring and serving.
As Karen McCreary, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says, "Religious organizations have the right to promote their religious views and run their operations as they see fit when using their own money, but should not be doing so on the taxpayer's dime."
Other agencies, such as Jewish Family Services, would be open to pursuing government funds if they felt the money furthered their goals. JFS provides counseling and other programs to people irrespective of religious affiliation, but executive director Carol Einhorn said her perception is government dollars are reserved for areas she's not particularly interested in pursuing, such as substance-abuse programming.
"To develop a program for funding around which you have no expertise, I don't like to do things that way," she said. "You can't get [government funding] for the things we do, not that I know of."
Here's where Smith hopes to help, by pointing people in directions they may have not considered. She's created an electronic newsletter with ideas, available to nonprofits by e-mailing email@example.com
No easy money
But skeptics remain.
At the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, the yearlong addiction-recovery program is Bible-based, and church services are offered to the homeless. Still, executive director Stephen Trost said he'd gladly separate church from secular services if he believed the agency had something to gain from the government. The experiences of colleagues tell him the effort isn't worth it.
"Nobody in the Rescue [Mission] world has ever been successful in getting this money," he said of the 600-plus facilities like his that dot the country. "I don't know anyone that's gotten a dime."
Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, a Utah advocacy group striving for social justice, also said she hasn't gone after government dollars - in part because there isn't much there.
One big misconception: Money for faith-based organizations is new and plentiful. Instead, it's the same pool of cash, with a bunch of new people diving in to drain it, she said.
Others are determined not to get discouraged. The Rev. Thomas Thompson of Salt Lake City's Centenary United Methodist Church was denied money last year to make his place of worship accessible to the disabled.
"You don't make any money the first year anyway," he said. "I'm expecting it'll take two or three years."
Meantime, big outfits such as Catholic Community Services, Salvation Army and Volunteers of America have been tapping into federal funds for decades. The stand-alone Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City also has benefited from government dollars.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds were used to build a senior housing complex, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped bankroll AIDS and HIV education. Both efforts were kept separate from the church's religious efforts.
"We're not doing anything that we haven't been doing for the last 40 years," said the Rev. France Davis.
More recently, Davis' church provided assistance to Hurricane Katrina evacuees airlifted to Utah. It was a job his church members took on without government support, but the state later provided grant money, unasked, he said.
Don Gomes, executive director of Utah Nonprofits Association, says the new packaging for federal funds was likely "meant to assuage some political elements," but that shouldn't matter in the end.
"Politics is a funny thing," he said. "If those funds are being translated to real services, if people are being served, I don't really care how this is couched."
JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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