Faith-based initiative gets positive feedback
By Loretta Fulton
Abilene Reporter-News Staff Writer
Listening to three hours of opinions didn't change U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm's mind Saturday about a bill before Congress to give faith-based organizations easier access to government funds.
"I am more favorably inclined now," he said, after hearing predominantly positive comments from about 200 people who gathered at Abilene Christian University.
The Abilene Democrat said he felt positively about President Bush's proposal from the beginning, but that he wanted more input from the people he represents before casting a vote on the Community Solutions Act of 2001.
Joining Stenholm for the town hall meeting was Stanley Carlson-Thies, a representative from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A panel of about 25 people representing various social and governmental agencies made comments, followed by questions from the audience.
A vote is expected in the House of Representatives before July 4, Carlson-Thies said. Part of the legislation would make it easier for faith-based institutions to get government grants for social services.
Those institutions already are eligible for government funding and many, such as the Salvation Army, have gotten government assistance for years. But Carlson-Thies said the new legislation would take down some of the barriers religious organizations have faced and make it easier for them to apply.
"It levels the playing field," he said.
Although most of the comments Saturday were favorable, Jean Vaughn, a member of the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, expressed concern that only Christian organizations would benefit.
"Don't forget that some of us don't share the world view that is predominant in this community," Vaughn said.
People with views different from the local norm want to be assured there will be no indoctrination by faith-based groups receiving federal money, Vaughn said. And they want assurance that people seeking help won't be given a "faith test" before receiving services.
Vaughn didn't rule out the proposal altogether, but said safeguards must be in place.
"I want him (Stenholm) to be sure the civil rights of everyone are protected," she said.
Vaughn's concerns were underscored from the beginning of the forum when ACU vice president Jack Rich offered a prayer that ended with the words, "through Christ we pray." State Rep. Bob Hunter followed with several comments about the contributions of Christians in the United States.
Vaughn said she is concerned that that mindset will be prevalent among religious people receiving government funding for social programs.
"They don't even realize they're violating other people's faith," she said.
Stenholm said he shared Vaughn's concerns and realized the United States is made up of people of numerous faiths. Superimposing beliefs on others can lead to "constitutional thin ice," he said.
The other main concern expressed was that if faith-based providers start applying for federal grants, the available pool of money will shrink even more.
"The funding pot grows smaller while the need grows," said Jody Grigsby, with the Nonprofit Resource Center in Abilene.
But mainly Stenholm heard favorable responses, especially from representatives of organizations already accepting government funding. Amy J. Berry, with the Lutheran Social Services office in Lubbock, said her organization has met with nothing but success in contracting with the government.
"It has been a very positive, wonderful collaborative experience," she said.
Scott Golding, with the Presbyterian Medical Care Mission in Abilene, gave a similar testimony. Golding said the mission has received government funds for a long time and that people frequently call him from across the nation to ask about it.
"A lot of this seems to be almost a non-issue for a lot of us," Golding said.
Abilenians weren't the only ones expressing opinions. People from Coleman, Stamford, Haskell and other Big Country communities gave their opinions, too.
The Rev. Jesse Hooper, pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Stamford, said rural communities can especially benefit because of a lack of government agencies in small towns.
"This program may not provide exactly what we need, but it's something," he said.
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