Religious Groups Debate Housing Services Proposal

An array of church organizations took opposing sides before Congress on Tuesday over a Bush administration proposal to increase access to federal housing money for religious groups who provide social services.

The proposal comes close to violating the constitutional divide between church and state and doesn't prevent groups that receive money against discriminating against people of other faiths, said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. He is affiliated with the United Church or Christ, and representatives from Baptist and Jewish organizations also opposed the plan.

A Methodist minister and the dean of the Catholic University of America Law School were among those who testified in support of the proposal, part of an array of initiatives promoted by President Bush to make it easier for religious groups to get federal social services money.

The proposal would provide significant help to religious organizations that offer services to the poor but are shut out from applying for such funding, said E. Lebron Fairbanks, of Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

The religious leaders spoke Tuesday at the first hearing on the proposal by the House Financial Services housing subcommittee.

The change, first proposed by the Bush administration in January, would allow religious groups to apply for federal aid to erect or refurbish buildings where religious activities are held, so long as social services are also provided in the buildings.

For example, the proposal may allow an organization to use money to build a room that is used sometimes as a homeless shelter and sometimes for church activities, Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have said.

Religious groups would retain their independence and be allowed to express their beliefs as long as the funds don't directly support worship or religious instruction.

Enforcing that division is among the proposal's greatest problems, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said in echoing a criticism from House Democrats.

"This approach raises the specter of horrendous accounting problems, logistical difficulties and burdensome auditing and record keeping," Walker said.

Critics also argue that church groups have access to some federal assistance already, so long as they create separate charitable organizations that don't discriminate.

HUD has said it would enforce the guidelines in part by using monitoring procedures already in place for nonreligious applicants, such as requiring reports from the organizations and visits from local HUD officials.

Catholic law school dean Douglas Kline said the proposal passes constitutional muster, while "placing religious organizations on an equal footing with other potential grantees."