By Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Lawmakers looking to cut millions from schools and government health-care programs to cope with a budget crisis could end up giving religious groups a big infusion of cash.
A proposal would set aside $625,000 in state money to help churches and other faith-based organizations get their hands on new money flowing from Washington.
State Rep. John White, R-Kettering, says a new office is needed to aid nonprofit groups in finding and spending the $70 billion in federal money set aside by President Bush's faith-based initiative.
"We want to tell folks where the money is, for heaven's sake," White said. "Smaller organizations don't know where the bones are buried. That small food pantry with lots of volunteers on a shoestring budget - they aren't a big-name group, but they're doing great work."
Bush's initiative makes it easier for religious groups to get federal money for programs like abstinence education and welfare to work, said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
White put an amendment into the House's proposed $48.6 billion, two-year budget bill setting aside the $625,000 in welfare funds for a new office. The budget bill is being debated in the Senate.
White said the office would become a home base for faith-based and other nonprofit groups to learn how to find money and to get legal guidance on how to use that money without crossing the line into evangelizing.
While White's plan has the backing of Gov. Bob Taft, not everyone is excited about "leveling the playing field" for religious groups.
Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said he's skeptical of how legislators are going to justify spending $625,000 to create a new office at a time when they're supposed to be finding ways to cut back.
"That the governor, at a time when we have a massive budget crisis, is setting aside the better part of a million dollars to help fund faith-based organizations seems to me to be very ill-advised," he said.
Vasvari said the ACLU has always been opposed to faith-based funding.
"It invites violations of church and state separation," Vasvari said.
The federal government tells faith-based grant recipients just exactly how they can use federal dollars, Towey said. For example, they can't force people to pray as a condition of receiving a medical treatment. But critics like Vasvari wonder how close a watch the government will keep on small religious organizations.
Judy Fulcher, director of Butler County Catholic Social Services, said her group uses federal and state money to run counseling services and a sexual-abuse treatment program. She said her hope is a faith-based office that would help grassroots and small church groups fund those kinds of programs without the rigmarole of proving they won't use the money to preach.
"If they're providing good services, you have to somehow get some money to them without the red tape," Fulcher said.
Federal grant money has always been available for organizations that provide social services, but in the past few years President Bush pushed for money to go specifically toward faith-based groups. The president has said such groups historically faced unfair rules and bias from grantmakers, Towey said.
Bush's Compassion Care fund set aside $30 million for faith-based groups. A welfare authorization bill that's being heard in the U.S. Senate would earmark up to $1 billion over five years to states to set up programs to help marriages stay together - programs often offered by church-run groups, Towey said.
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