Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bush's Faith-Based Initiative Will Be Part of His Legacy

USA Today reports that President Bush's office issued a final report Monday to its religious and secular partners, declaring the faith-based initiative a success. The report asserts that federal partnerships with faith-based and other community organizations have greatly expanded. According to White House tallies, nonprofit groups received $15.3 billion in competitive grants in fiscal year 2007, an increase of 3.9% over the previous year. That figure included $2.2 billion to faith-based nonprofits, which have received federal grants of more than $10.6 billion since the initiative got underway in 2002.

However, such spending decisions were subjected to numerous legal challenges. A federal appeals court ruled that a prominent faith-based prison rehabilitation program was unconstitutional, while the U.S. Supreme Court determined that atheist taxpayers lacked standing to challenge the overall faith-based initiative. Critics also accused the White House of using the office as a political tool to appease religious conservatives in the GOP base, and to build electoral bridges to blacks and Hispanics.

The initiative's long-term effects on public policy may be determined by the Obama administration — which has vowed to continue the program after a top-to-bottom review — but experts say it already has made significant changes in how religious groups can partner with governmental agencies.

While the Clinton-era "charitable choice" welfare provision expanded existing federal funding for faith-based social programs, the Bush administration added a "very splashy push" to public-private partnerships, said Ira C. Lupu, a professor at George Washington University Law School. Lupu recently co-authored a report that assessed the program's legal impact, and doubts that such partnerships will ever again be "categorically disqualified" for delivering social services. "The constitutional era of mandatory exclusion of intensely faith-oriented organizations from these kinds of partnerships is over," said Lupu. "It's really quite indelibly marked on the consciousnesses of both sides that things have changed, that if it's done right, it can be done in a way that satisfies the Constitution. If it's done wrong, it will invite lawsuits."

The faith-based push is not confined to Washington. According to White House figures, 36 governors — 19 Democrats and 17 Republicans — have established faith-based offices or liaisons, as have more than 70 mayors.

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