WASHINGTON – A majority of Americans support the idea of religious groups getting government money to provide social services, according to a poll. But they are sharply divided on specifics of the proposal backed by the Bush administration.
They have mixed feelings about which religious groups should get government money and whether religious groups will try to convert the people they are helping, according to the poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.
"The poll suggests people support the concept of faith-based funding, but they have lots of reservations that might undermine that general support," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
The Bush administration proposal to expand government funding for religious groups to provide social services was initially greeted warmly but has increasingly come under fire from both the right and the left.
When people were asked whether religious organizations should be allowed to apply for government funding to provide social services, seven in 10 said they favored the idea.
About six in 10 supported public funding for Catholic churches, Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues to provide social services. But that support dropped off when people were asked about the Nation of Islam, the Church of Scientology, (each favored by about a fourth) Buddhist temples and groups that encourage religious conversions as part of their services (each favored by about a third.)
Two thirds of those questioned said they were concerned government might get too involved in what religious organizations do and six in 10 said they're concerned that the groups might force those they help to take part in religious practices.
People said providing a variety of social service options and the compassion they expected from those in religious groups were the best reason for supporting the plan.
"The president starts out with considerable public sympathy for the idea, but he also starts out with a public that has a lot of practical and philosophical questions," said E.J. Dionne, co-chairman of the Pew Forum and a newspaper columnist.
The poll of 2,041 adults was taken March 5-18 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.