WASHINGTON – Religious charities (search) in 10 states got 40 percent of the $2 billion in taxpayer money available to groups deemed "faith-based" (search) by the White House in 2004, according to figures the White House provided Thursday to The Associated Press.
That's only slightly more than the money awarded under President Bush's initiative to international groups, which snared a third of the total funding. Organizations in the other 40 states and three U.S. territories shared the remaining funds.
Bush planned to announce the figures on Friday after visiting children who have parents in prison and who participate in religious charities.
Since taking office in 2001, Bush has pushed to give religious groups equal footing with nonsectarian groups in competing for federal contracts.
The president says religious organizations often do a better job of serving the poor and meeting other social needs. Unable to win passage of legislation to accomplish his goal, Bush has bypassed Congress and made more taxpayer money available to such groups through executive orders and regulations.
Civil libertarians fear the government will wind up paying for worship, eroding the constitutional separation between church and state (search).
The White House does not distribute funds directly to religious charities and there is no fund or amount set aside for those groups.
Instead, these groups compete with secular organizations that also are bidding for grants from federal agencies.
The vast majority of the international grants came from the U.S. Agency for International Development and went to charities working in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti and other developing nations.
"It's a competitive process," said Jim Towey, who directs the initiative for Bush.
According to the White House figures, grants of more than $100 million for religious groups went to New York, Illinois and California.
The other states rounding out the top 10 were New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia and Ohio.
The two states at the bottom of the rankings — Rhode Island and Vermont — each got less than $100,000, but they are two of the country's smallest states.
Towey said state figures can be misleading because they can be driven up by one large grant. He also said some state and local governments still discriminate against religious groups and that Bush wants that to change.
"It's too early to declare victory on that," Towey said.
Bush has urged Congress to pass a law that would allow religious groups to consider religion when making employment decisions while not jeopardizing their federal contracts. The president says the charities are effective because of the shared values and religious identity of their volunteers and employees. Critics say hiring and firing based on religion is discrimination.
Towey said the overall increase in grants to religious groups shows progress. The White House said $1.17 billion went to faith-based organizations in 2003.
An AP examination of the 2003 grants showed that dollars went to some programs where prayer and spiritual guidance are central. Also getting money were organizations that do not consider themselves religious at all. Many of these groups had secular missions; some were surprised to find their names on the White House's list of faith-based groups.
Towey said some groups that did not want to be on the list were removed this year.