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Report highlights controversy on Bush faith-based initiative

President Bush's creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives follows a three-year effort by a group of religious and civic leaders to identify ways for faith-based organizations to deliver needed social services in partnership with the government. The group, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released a report on Tuesday during a forum in Washington asserting its view that the government can help religious organizations that deal with social problems. The group was formed in response to the 1996 welfare reform initiative, which focused on helping low-income families become self-sufficient. "Is it possible for [religious organizations] to receive the funds, but not provide them in an atmosphere that's not conducive to the religious beliefs of those being served?" asked Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee. "This report will help clarify the debate … and will enable [the organizations] and decision-makers in Congress to wrestle with these issues in a more informed manner." Bush created the new office on Jan. 29, giving religious groups a voice in how government provides social services. He also created five agency centers to integrate faith-based programs into departmental activities. The report did not come to any firm conclusions. Rather, the diverse group agreed to disagree on several important issues. Members agreed that religious organizations and government agencies can work together, but disagreed on other church and state separation issues, namely the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 welfare reform initiative. Under this provision, faith-based organizations that deal with social problems compete with each other for government funds. Many in the group felt that churches should not use government money to provide services, but instead should create separate organizations to deliver services in order to minimize separation of church and state conflicts. The report focused on controversial issues surrounding collaboration between the government and religious organizations, including alternatives for people who do not want to receive services from a particular religious organization; discrimination by religious providers against recipients who hold different religious beliefs; the ability of recipients to opt out of the religious portion of a program; and applying religious belief to hiring practices. "We are all taxpayers and the government should not discriminate against an organization because of its religious content or character," said Rev. Donna Jones, a minister from Cookman United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Jones runs a faith-based organization out of her church and says funding from the government allowed her to expand her program and provide more services. "It opened a door for us that in the past had been closed and it also recognized what community-based churches had been doing for decades," Jones said. Darren Walker, chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corp., a faith-based organization in Philadelphia, was less optimistic about the venture, citing the need for government officials to be cautious about giving money to smaller, less financially stable churches, where mismanagement of funds could occur. "It's dangerous to think that a church should be running a government service out of its general fund," Walker said. Organizations that participated in the study include the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee, Catholic Charities USA, The Center for Public Justice, Evangelicals for Social Action, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United States Catholic Conference, Catholic University and Temple University.