(The following is excerpted from the November-December issue of "The Other Side.")

Some Churches, struggling to identify a way to serve their communities, have seen Charitable Choice as a remarkable opportunity. But other Christians have joined together in a public witness of dissent. They are refusing to participate in the Charitable Choice program - and asking other Christians to question its implications.

These are the questions they are asking:

Maybe social services - but welfare?
Many Christians believe religious organizations do a better, more compassionate, and more committed job of delivering social services than government agencies. Welfare services, however, are another matter. Cash benefits, food stamps, and rent allowance are essentially a means of wealth distribution and rightly involve a complex eligibility system. Though such distribution is a function of government responsibility for the common good, some churches involved in Charitable Choice have been asked to report back to the government on the status of the poor they serve. Do congregations want to begin to determine eligibility for such benefits -- and to enable further erosion of government commitment to the common good?

Where should we put our limited energy?
Recent studies confirm that welfare reform has led to a dramatic increase in the need for emergency ford and housing programs largely dominated by churches and faith-based organizations. Do we want to perpetuate an environment in which we no longer have the time or energy to address systemic issues of poverty?

What are the church-state implications?
With Charitable Choice, functions long assumed by the state are being shifted to religious bodies. Few policies outlining criteria for participation or structures of accountability are in place. Will ministries be able to pursue their own approach, independent of state controls and requirements? Will those who seek help have to buy into certain religious ideas to get aid? What will be the long term impact of merging government and church in this hastily forged coalition?

Are we endorsing a dangerous blueprint? Since 1996, many Christian groups and some members of Congress have been working to expand the Charitable Choice provision from welfare services to other public services. Among those mentioned are juvenile justice, substance abuse, child support enforcement, and education. Do we want to provide government a mechanism to wash its hands of its major social provisions?

Will we compromise Truth Telling? In recent decades, some community development groups who've spoken out against government policy and mobilized citizen dissent have lost government funding. Legislation has restricted federal funding of groups that have outspoken advocacy programs. Can a religious congregation receive government funding and still speak truth to power?

What happens to our relationship to the poor? While some welfare-to-work services have enabled the best-qualified welfare recipients to find work, the vast majority of poor families are caught in crises that make work difficult, and are penalized by punitive welfare regulations. Will the churches that once stood in solidarity with the poor become the new policemen of the poor?

Will we face unreal expectations? Proponents of Charitable Choice often point to the high success rates of faith-based organizations and ministries as proof that government just can't do it as well. These success rates are affirming and reflect the high commitment and many volunteer hours poured into small faith based programs. But, there is no certainty that these elements can be sustained on a larger scale. Will faith-based organizations be expected to produce results that conventional programs have not?
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