Critics say the proposal, part of an array of "faith-based" initiatives pushed by President Bush the past two years, comes perilously close to crossing the constitutional divide between church and state and may foster discrimination by religious groups against people of other faiths. "This is destroying the notion that government and religion should remain separate," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Thursday.
But federal housing officials say the proposal would eliminate bias against religious groups that offer social services like homeless shelters and soup kitchens. "We are just leveling the playing field. This is part of an overall effort to end discrimination against faith-based organizations," said Housing and Urban Development Department spokeswoman Diane Tomb.
The proposal, published Jan. 6 in the Federal Register, covers programs that administer about $7.7 billion a year to communities. Exact guidelines are being worked out, said HUD general counsel Richard Hauser.
However, he said the proposed changes may, for example, let an organization use funding to build or renovate a room that is used sometimes as a homeless shelter, sometimes for church activities.
Or a group could use federal money to renovate a basement into a soup kitchen and private funds for a church upstairs, officials said. "We don't have all the answers right now but we are on the right track ... to removing some of these barriers," Hauser said.
Religious groups that take HUD money would retain their independence and be allowed to express their beliefs as long as the funds do not directly support activities such as worship or religious instruction. "If the organization engages in such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with HUD assistance," according to the proposed guidelines in the Federal Register.
Hauser said the government would make sure guidelines are followed in part by sending local HUD officials to inspect sites and relying on reports from the groups.
Anyone who receives services from the religious group must not be required to participate in any religious activity, and a religious group also may not discriminate based on religion against someone seeking help, HUD has said.
Frank said there was no way to ensure that such discrimination would not occur, and he questioned the government's role in policing the groups to make certain guidelines are followed. "This is taxpayer funding for the expansion of churches and clearly a violation of the division of church and state," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It's utterly impossible to monitor the use of such funds."
The government is accepting public comment on the proposal until March 7. The change is subject to final approval from federal officials.