WASHINGTON -- Is the much-touted White House faith-based initiative a partisan effort that will silence the black church's political voice? Or is it a welcome reinforcement to social services long provided by African-American congregations in the nation's inner cities and beyond?

As the debate over government funding of religious social services continues, African-American churches are lining up on either side of what appears to be a growing divide over whether the efforts spearheaded by the White House and developing on Capitol Hill should be embraced or shunned.

When the White House initiative was unveiled shortly after President Bush took office, a consortium of mostly theologically conservative black ministers was in the limelight voicing support for efforts to increase partnerships between their churches and departments of the federal government. But more recently, some of the more traditional forces in the African-American religious community have started asking questions.

The Congress of National Black Churches, a coalition of eight historically black denominations, is drafting a formal statement that is sure to add to the debate over plans to expand the access religious organizations have to federal funds for their social service programs.

"About a dozen questions are raised about the faith-based initiative and with what we know about it now, our position ranges from somewhere between alarm to caution to militant opposition," said Bishop John Hurst Adams, chairman emeritus and founder of the Washington-based congress, and the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Adams said congress leaders wonder whether the initiative may lead to constitutional problems as well as greater competition for a limited amount of funds.

The Religious Affairs Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has formulated a resolution that states that "the NAACP opposes any and all faith-based and charitable choice initiatives which do not include traditional and well-established employment rights, civil rights and anti-discrimination protections which can be enforced by our nation's courts."

The Rev. Julius Hope, national director of religious affairs for the NAACP, says he's suspicious of what seems like sudden Republican interest in helping black churches.

"We have to be very suspect as relates to charitable choice," he said of the 5-year-old concept in welfare reform legislation that has allowed more funding of faith groups. "It could be like a Trojan horse, divide and conquer. ... That's where we are now. You've got some clergy for it, some clergy against it."

The Rev. Eugene Rivers of Dorchester, Mass., a member of the theologically conservative consortium that supports the White House initiative dismisses those suspicions, noting the "charitable choice" provision was first approved by former President Clinton. "How come the very program that was initiated by Clinton somehow becomes transformed because now you've got Bush dealing with it?"

Rivers, who said he voted for former Vice President Al Gore in the last presidential election, argued support of the federal faith-based initiatives relates to policy more than party.

"The reality is that smart black people will deal with all political leaders on an issue-by-issue basis," said Rivers, a Church of God in Christ pastor who serves as the general secretary of the Pan African Charismatic Evangelical Congress.

Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, the pastor of a nondenominational church in West Palm Beach, Fla., agrees. He helped bring hundreds of clergy -- more than half of them African-American -- to a summit on faith-based issues on Capitol Hill in late April.

"People are fearing that religious partnership is creating Republican partisanship," said Ray, founder of the National Center for Faith Based Initiative, a year-old network of clergy that intends to foster economic and social development in local communities.

"I don't see that. Whether it is Democratic or Republican, good policies need to be embraced."

Before the Congress of National Black Churches board met to develop its statement, the president of one of its member denominations declared his opposition to the White House plans.

"This initiative can only be seen as another effort to muffle the prophetic voice of the African-American church," said the Rev. C. Mackey Daniels, in a recent Baptist Joint Committee newsletter.

"I am convinced that charitable choice is akin to Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Daniels is a member of the board of the committee, whose executive director recently testified before a House subcommittee opposing charitable choice. Ray, however, said it is "hysteria" to think the black church could be silenced. "Our contract with government does not supersede our covenant with God," he said.

Some African-American churches that have supported government partnerships are well-prepared for such connections. They already have separate nonprofit corporations to handle social services, keeping public funds separate from the private ones dropped in collection plates. But some clergy remain worried their brethren might fall into legal trouble if the government audits the books of churches using public funds.

"Churches are getting into a very competitive arena," warned Megan McLaughlin, executive director and chief executive officer of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York. "One pastor said to me ...`You know we'll know how serious this is the first time they drag a brother off to jail."

The proposed House legislation expanding charitable choice calls for a "limited audit" of government funds held in separate accounts.

McLaughlin was speaking during a panel discussion on charitable choice during a Washington-area conference in mid-April on "Black Churches and Political Leadership in the New Millennium."

During that same conference, the results of a survey of a small sample of black clergy demonstrated the divide: 21 percent strongly agreed with government funding of church-provided social services while 39 percent strongly disagreed.

Conference attendees discussed how some black churches already have contacted the White House, voicing their support for the initiative and, in some cases, seeking funds from the office that is not even distributing money.

"All over the country, you can find them," said Michael Leo Owens, a visiting political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. But others are taking a more cautious approach.

"Black churches are thinking, are waiting, are discussing and realizing that the program is not even up and running yet," said Cedric Harmon, associate field director for religious outreach at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Rev. Arnold Howard, vice chair of People for the American Way's African American Ministers Leadership Council, recently spoke in opposition to the pending legislation that would permit faith-based organizations receiving public funds to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Though he spoke against the measure, Howard said afterward he can understand why some of his colleagues are more worried about needed funding than constitutional quandaries: "All of us are after the same thing: what is best for our community, how to best uplift it, provide the resources, get those things that are due."

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