We are redefining what it means to be a partner with the federal government. – Acacia Bamberg Salatti

When Acacia Bamberg Salatti runs down the accomplishments of the faith-based center in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one item is conspicuously missing from the list: how much money the center has handed out to churches and other religious groups.

That's because the center — like its sister centers in 12 other government agencies — doesn't deal in dollars.

"We are redefining what it means to be a partner with the federal government," said Salatti, acting director of HHS' Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "That used to mean government would give you a certain amount of money to do a certain thing. In the past four years, we have been creating opportunities where faith communities can engage with departments in non-financial partnerships and in more civic-type partnerships."

That engagement involves Sallati and her staff putting together webinars, publishing an online newsletter with 90,000 recipients and arranging meetings, like one at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Philadelphia where HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke to a congregation about what health care reform means to the local community.

Broadening the definition of doing business with government has effectively deflected much of the controversy that dogged the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in its early years. When President George W. Bush launched his faith-based initiative, critics immediately voiced concerns about illegal church-state entanglement, and the office was later accused of using the lure of government contracts to win votes in religious congressional districts.

The accusations never rose beyond bad publicity, although critics of the fledgling bureaucracy remain uncomfortable about the church-state implications of government getting chummy with religious groups. But with a new director who has vowed to continue the administration's strategy, no one is expecting much change or controversy to come out of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the next three years.

"I wouldn't hold my breath," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who helped establish the White House faith-based office during Bush's first term.

Preferential hiring

What can be expected from the faith-based office is a continued emphasis on distributing information to religious groups — information not just about where to apply for grants, but also initiatives and programs the government can offer to their communities.

"We do make our partners aware of grant opportunities through our newsletter," Salatti said. "But one thing we have found that’s refreshing is that people are thirsty for just information."

That's a different approach than what President Bush envisioned when he signed his first executive order in 2001, creating a mechanism to enlist church organizations, particularly those adept at caring for the poor in their communities, in helping the government deliver welfare services. Many faith-based groups had claimed there was a built-in bias against religion when it came to competing for federal grants and contracts, and the Bush administration took steps to remove that bias by helping religious groups compete for government funds.

But secular groups — and some religious groups — complained that awarding taxpayer dollars to faith-based organizations would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. They also complained that religious groups would have to comply with civil rights laws and be willing to hire those outside the faith if they were going to let government fund their charitable operations.

When President Barack Obama appointed Melissa Rogers as the executive director of the faith-based office in March, some hoped she would reverse a Bush administration order exempting religious groups from federal hiring discrimination laws. Rogers, a religion scholar and attorney who chaired an advisory council Obama appointed in his first term to examine the purpose of the faith-based office, had said faith-based groups receiving federal aid shouldn't engage in preferential hiring. But at a news conference soon after her appointment, she quieted any such hopes of addressing the issue in her new role.

"Asked about that contentious issue ... Rogers said that it 'remains under review' by the Obama administration and that in her new role she will 'carry out President Obama’s views on this and all other issues,'” according to The Washington Post.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama came out against preferential hiring by faith groups that receive tax dollars, but since 2009 his administration has backed off and instead taken the stance of examining any discrimination complaints on a case-by-case basis.

Carlson-Thies, who heads the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, has an idea why the hiring issue was put on a back burner.

He recalls convening a 2009 meeting with about 15 faith-based groups and Obama's first-term transition team. The exchange revealed that imposing hiring restrictions on religious groups would cause upheaval in the existing delivery of welfare services because too many religious groups providing those services had been exempt from civil rights hiring restrictions for a decade or longer.

"I think it was a moment of truth for some of the people in the room who said if that’s the case, maybe we don’t want to be too hasty in making a change even if we would like to," recalled Carlson-Thies. "In my own view, that's still why they haven't changed anything."

Another reason could be that few complaints have been registered over hiring discrimination by religious organizations funded by a federal grant.

"If it is illegal why isn’t someone hauling all these groups into court?" Carlson-Thies said. "They don't haul anyone into court because it's a policy argument," not a legal one.

He contends that social services is not a jobs program, and any restrictions placed on contracts for programs helping the poor should be related to how well the service is done, not who does it.

Information, not money

Rather than sort out that policy debate, Rogers said the office will build on the work of her predecessor, Joshua DuBois, by involving faith-based and community groups by soliciting their input into government initiatives and by using their established networks to distribute information about programs and services.

The latest example of this continuity came in April, when the office unveiled a 10-point plan recommending how government can can help combat human trafficking. For example, the office recommends developing a "tool kit on how religious and community-based organizations can learn more about and take steps to join the fight against trafficking."

Other initiatives on which Rogers reportedly said the office would work with faith-based and secular partners include eradicating malaria and tuberculosis, making flu vaccinations more accessible, recruiting volunteers in public schools, and challenging college students to be more deeply engaged in service projects.

As far as grant money is concerned, the office and its centers in 13 separate government agencies have limited that effort to simply providing information on what funding is available.

Because many grants are administered through state agencies, it is difficult to know how much federal money actually goes to faith-based organizations. But scholars who tracked the office's grant funding efforts in the Bush era, when money was the issue, say that while the faith-based initiative may have leveled the field for religious groups to compete for federal funds, few actually apply for the money.

The main hurdle is the process of simply applying for a grant, which has proved too cumbersome and complicated for local congregations with limited staff and expertise to pore over paperwork and submit a winning proposal, said Ram Cnaan, a professor of social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania who has done extensive research on how the faith-based initiative has impacted social welfare.

"From a congregational standpoint, it has had very little impact" on involving local churches in providing government social services, he said. "Many said, 'This is the government, and it is nice that they like us now, but we would rather keep it the way it is and apply for money through local agencies and foundations.'"

Faith-based groups that have applied for and received grants did not respond to requests for an interview about their experience or their work.

Working with government

Other religious groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a global welfare and humanitarian aid program, would prefer to go it alone in financing charitable work.

“The church does not use federal funds to help those in need," spokesman Scott Trotter said. "The assistance the church provides is made possible by LDS Welfare and Humanitarian Services and the generous donations made by church members and others.”

That's what Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, likes to hear. Gaddy says he and Rogers hail from the same Baptist heritage that advocates a strict separation of church and state. But they differ on the idea of a government office that works with religious groups, even if it does nothing more than just share information about where to apply for federal grants or compete for contracts.

"What disturbs me is government’s insensitivity to what taking government money does to a religious entity," Gaddy said. "Any organization that gets money from the government will have to answer to government control and guidelines. ... When that happens religion loses."

Carlson-Thies said those are issues for faith-based organizations to address. He explained that the original intent of the faith-based initiative was to simply make it possible for religious groups that do social services well to compete with secular groups for the work.

"They are entitled to be at the table and compete for the money," he said, "but they ought to be careful because it's clear if you get too much money from one source then all you can do is pretty much what that one source wants you to do."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com