To inspire a roomful of women trying to leave welfare, the Rev. Vashti McKenzie told the biblical story of Joseph, the young dreamer who overcame slavery and false imprisonment to become a top member of the Egyptian pharaoh’s court.
“You may not have it as tough as Joseph,” McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church, told the women. “But if you just hold onto your dreams like he did, then one day they’ll come true.”
Her sermonette wasn’t typical fare for most state-funded job-training programs, but lawmakers had this in mind when they made it easier for churches and religious groups to use government money to help welfare recipients leave the rolls.
The hope was that the “charitable choice” provision in last year’s federal welfare reform law would add a spiritual lift in the tough journey to self-sufficiency.
But the religious community’s response has been wholly unenthusiastic, experts say.
The reasons vary. Some religious leaders believe the law blurs the historic separation of church and state. Others fear that taking government money will weaken their authority. And many cite philosophical opposition.
“Religious liberals emphasize public responsibility to the poor and see welfare reform and everything that goes with it as reducing that public role,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Justice, a moderate policy and research group in Washington.
“Conservatives support the idea of churches serving the poor,” he continued. But they worry that government money could lead to government intrusion and “view any offer of a partnership as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
While no figures are available on the amount of contracts issued under the provision, most experts agree that the number is small. But some churches are assuming an unofficial role, Carlson-Thies said. Church members in Mississippi and Michigan, for example, are mentoring welfare recipients on a volunteer basis.
In the past, religious groups participating in government programs have had to play down their spiritual character in order to satisfy constitutional law. The First Amendment forbids the government from establishing any church or faith.
But Carlson-Thies said the U.S. Supreme Court has never interpreted the passage to mean that religious groups must censor or forgo their spiritual identity to participate. And while the charitable choice provision forbids the use of public money for proselytizing, it permits more religious flexibility.
Employees of religious groups that teach remedial classes, counsel on sexual abstinence and drug abuse, and otherwise help welfare clients may wear religious clothing and display religious artifacts and symbols, the federal welfare law says. These groups also can hire, fire and discipline their employees for religious reasons, which wasn’t previously allowed in federally funded programs.
“For the first time in federal law, there are clear legal protections given to these organizations,” said Stephen Monsma, a political science professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “I see it as a big breakthrough, and I think more groups will take advantage once word gets out that the rules of the game have changed.”
In June, Payne Memorial became the first church in Maryland to get a welfare reform contract. The church has received $1.5 million to prepare 1,000 welfare recipients for jobs over the next two years. McKenzie, the pastor, plans to have staff and clients regularly discuss spiritual solutions to problems in their lives.
“This law just says it’s all right to be who you are,” McKenzie said. “If we have a short prayer break, we don’t have to worry about the prayer patrol saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ And if there’s a cross on the wall, no one’s going to say ‘take it down.”’
The law also safeguards the rights of welfare recipients by forbidding religious groups from discriminating on the basis of religion. They can’t force clients to take part in religious activities. And if a welfare recipient would rather not deal with a religious group, the state must link them with another agency. That may work in urban areas, said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a non-profit advocacy group in Washington. “But in small towns and rural areas, it’s unrealistic to think there’s always a second provider ready to duplicate what a church is doing. It’s only a matter of time before complaints start to come in,” Boston said.
Some churches fear they will have to surrender their decision-making powers in exchange for government funds. In Birmingham, Ala., the local Woman’s Missionary Union, a nonprofit Protestant organization, decided against seeking state money to expand a self-help program for women on welfare. Doing so would have meant making the program’s mandatory Bible study optional.
“We didn’t want to compromise and do that,” said Trudy Johnson, the group’s special project manager. “That’s a key part of who we are, and we hold fast to those things that are important to us.”
J. Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, which represents 12 national Baptist organizations on religious liberty issues, said the provision also hurts the credibility of the church as a watchdog against potential government wrongdoing.
“Organized religion can’t raise their prophetic fist at the state if the other hand is looking for a handout,” he said.
Even more moderate groups, like the Presbyterian Church (USA) Inc. in Louisville, Ky., have avoided participation, saying care of the poor should be the government’s primary responsibility. In Maryland, a coalition of 250 activist congregations had the same idea when it agreed not to cooperate with the state welfare policy that assumed churches would help provide child care, transportation and other services to needy families.
The real test for religious involvement in welfare reform will be how people fare under the programs.
Celestine Anderson, a participant in Payne Memorial’s jobs program, is a recovering cocaine and heroin addict. She wants to become a drug counselor and said the religious guidance provided by McKenzie will only help. “Coming here listening to the spiritual aspect and being around people that go to church, have faith and believe,” Anderson said, “that helps me stay strong in my process of staying clean.”
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