Oct. 3, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP)--Pushing its effort to involve churches and religious groups in social service, the Bush administration is giving $25 million to 21 groups, including several that are deeply religious in nature.

The Compassion Capital Fund grants, being announced Thursday, were designed to provide technical assistance to smaller churches and others that need help applying for and running government programs. As designed by the Department of Health and Human Services, the groups that get grants will then make sub-grants to help these smaller groups establish and run programs.

HHS said groups that work with homelessness, hunger, at-risk children, welfare to work, drug addicts and prisoners should get priority for the sub-grants. Those decisions will be made by the primary grantees, who were announced Thursday.

Religious groups winning awards include Virginia-based Operation Blessing International, a group founded by Pat Robertson, which won $500,000; Christian Community Health Fellowship of Illinois, which got $1.1 million; and Nueva Esperanza, a Hispanic, Philadephia-based group, which got the largest grant, nearly $2.5 million.

Other winners are traditional social service providers, including the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, $2 million; Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico, $1 million, and Volunteers of America, $700,000.

``The President's faith-based initiative doesn't subsidize religion. But discrimination against faith-based organizations based on their religious identification is wrong. This administration is committed to changing that long-standing practice,'' said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.

HHS received a total of more than 550 applications for the money.

The department is also awarding four grants totaling $850,000 to support research on how these groups provide social services and the role they play in communities. Among these grantees: the University of Pennsylvania, academic home of John DiIulio, who led Bush's initiative for its first, controversy-filled eight months.

HHS said $2.2 million is being given to Dare Mighty Things in Vienna, Va., to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse for technical assistance and training for religious and community-based groups. Another $1.35 million was awarded to Branch Associates of Philadelphia to evaluate ``innovative practices and promising approaches.'' There's been very little research as to how effective religious groups are in delivering social services.

The Compassion Capital Fund has not been officially established, or authorized, by Congress, where President Bush's overall initiative is stalled. But last year, lawmakers gave HHS $30 million to help implement one of the least controversial pieces of his plan: helping small groups that may be doing excellent work in their communities gain the expertise needed to win large grants and grow.

Bush has asked for $100 million for the fund next year, a request the House is going along with. The Senate wants the funding to remain at $30 million.

Because the program remains unauthorized, there are no rules in law to govern sticky issues governing the separation between church and state that accompany any government funding of religious groups.

For instance, in an interview this summer, Bobby Polito, who directs the HHS program, said groups getting grants or subgrants will be allowed to consider religion in hiring and firing workers. This is one of the major issues that has divided lawmakers and kept Bush's larger initiative on hold.

Polito also said there's no problem using federal money for a program in which prayer is central, as long as tax dollars are paying for secular elements of the program. He also said that groups will not be required to separate the religious and secular elements of their programs. Liberals object to both approaches, saying participants should be allowed to opt out of anything religious.

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