"While we continue to differ about what is constitutional and advisable on some points, all of us believe that religious organizations and the government can work together in productive ways to bring about the greater good of society," says the joint statement, "In Good Faith: A Dialogue on Government Funding of Faith-Based Social Services."
The document, the result of three years of private meetings and the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts, was praised by John DiIulio, director of the new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
DiIulio sat in the audience during the presentation of the statement during a news conference at the National Press Club but spoke only briefly, calling the statement the "single most significant thing" that has happened in relation to the office since President Bush signed the executive order creating it on Jan. 29.
The White House hopes to broaden "charitable choice," a provision of 1996 welfare reform legislation permitting government funding of religious organizations that provide social services.
The 16-page document cites a dozen areas of agreement, ranging from the need for secular alternatives for those who don't want faith-based services to the requirement that service recipients are not discriminated against on the basis of their religion. The parties also agreed that separate organizations that are affiliated with a house of worship but provide secular functions should continue to be qualified to receive government aid.
The statement affirms that organizations should not receive government money for religious activities but notes how difficult it is to define such activities. For example, a service recipient should not be urged to accept Jesus but could be advised to be honest, even though that is often considered a religious value. It also says worship, prayers and Scripture would be inappropriate in a government-funded program but a "neutral moment of silence" would not be considered worship.
The drafters also recommend that religious organizations use religious criteria to hire people for privately funded programs regardless of whether they receive government funds for other programs. They agree that religious providers receiving federal money should be allowed to display some religious art and should be able to retain religious references in their names.
The drafters also agreed that it is advisable, though not required, for congregations to create separately incorporated organizations to limit governmental scrutiny to the specific social services that are funded.
The document also notes the conflicting views about charitable choice.
Those in favor of the 5-year-old law providing for government funding of faith-based groups say it is constitutional and provides "the end of the presumption that government should endorse only secular prescriptions for poverty and need." They say it helps provide needed social services and protects the religious liberties of recipients of those services.
Those opposed believe it violates the Constitution by reducing government neutrality toward religion and potentially makes social service recipients "a captive audience for proselytizing and other religious activities." Opponents also believe charitable choice "heightens religious divisions" by creating competition for grants between different religious groups.
Groups signing the statement include the American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee, Call to Renewal, Catholic Charities USA, National Association of Evangelicals, Sikh Media Watch and Resource Task Force, U.S. Catholic Conference and Soka Gakkai International-USA, a Buddhist association.
The American Jewish Congress issued a statement declining to endorse the joint statement, saying it "lend(s) legitimacy to a program whose legitimacy is very much in doubt."
Murray Friedman, director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, defended the document, saying it doesn't support one side of the issue or the other.
"This (criticism) is not a serious look at the issues we're facing today," he said of the criticism. "The document itself is ... a very serious and thoughtful attempt to grapple with these issues."