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Lessons from the Texas faith-based initiative.

The situation in Texas, as it has developed for more than six years, provides a glaringly negative case study of what George W. Bush's faith-based initiative will look like if fully implemented nationally. This is because, while Bush was governor of Texas, he implemented a statewide version of the same initiative. Since its launch at the end of 1996 to the present, Bush's program has proved to be such a dangerous enterprise that the state is now taking steps to reverse it. This should serve as a warning for the rest of the country.

The federal genesis of Bush's Texas faith-based initiative occurred in 1996 when Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. John Ashcroft, then Republican senator from Missouri, had introduced this act--known as the Ashcroft Amendment--with its "charitable choice" initiative allowing states to contract directly with sectarian organizations to provide social services. The Ashcroft Amendment became Section 104 of the sweeping Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Religiously affiliated groups like Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services were already able to compete for and receive government funds prior to the passage of Section 104. They could do this, however, only if the organization established a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity to administer the funds and if the program didn't proselytize people in need or discriminate in its hiring practices. By contrast, under Section 104, organizations could compete for funding irrespective of the amount of religion contained in the social programs to be provided.

In December 1996--four months after Congress passed the charitable choice provision--Governor Bush issued an executive order directing "all pertinent executive branch agencies to:
 (i) take all necessary steps to implement
 the `charitable choice' provision of the
 federal welfare law; and (ii) take affirmative
 steps prescribed by the Act to protect
 the religious integrity and the
 functional autonomy of participating
 faith-based providers.... [and] file a
 written report with the Office of the
 Governor on the implementation status
 of `charitable choice' provisions"


within six months of the executive order.

Governor Bush also pulled together an almost exclusively Christian task force on faith-based programs, made up of sixteen clergy and laity, which was to offer recommendations for applying the faith-based concept in Texas. Then he charged this task force with two objectives: to identify laws and regulations that impeded the work of faith-based groups and to recommend ways to lift some of those regulations. (These instructions would become the prototype for his later direction as president of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which he created to shepherd his initiative on the federal level.) Not surprisingly, the task force and its findings echoed Bush's enthusiasm for aggressive implementation of the faith-based initiative. Over the next several years, Governor Bush implemented many of the task force's recommendations through legislative or regulatory means with varying degrees of success.

State legislation passed in 1997 and 1999 underscored the two-pronged approach of the Texas faith-based initiative, focusing on deregulating faith-based providers and increasing the financial resources made available to faith-based programs. In 1997 the Texas Legislature passed two bills that set the stage for this sort of deregulation. One established an alternative accreditation system that allowed faith-based entities to authorize faith-based children's homes and childcare facilities in lieu of their being licensed and regulated by the state. The other allowed faith-based chemical dependency programs to be exempted from state licensing and regulation.

Key state agencies then began making structural and policy changes to accommodate the executive and legislative mandates directing their involvement in the faith-based initiative. The mandates required major regulatory changes at the Texas Department of Human Services and the Texas Workforce Commission, which distribute federal charitable choice funds at the state level. The Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services and the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse were also involved in faith-based policy changes since they oversaw, respectively, faith-based child-care providers and faith-based drug treatment centers deregulated by the Texas legislature.

Responding to legislative direction, the Texas Department of Human Services (TDHS) established a charitable choice work group within the agency that completed an initial review of agency policies and regulations to identify regulatory barriers that hindered the participation of faith-based social service providers. TDHS then changed the language on all proposal requests and contracts, targeted outreach to faith-based organizations, and established regional liaisons to cultivate faith-based groups--all with an eye toward increasing the agency's financial and nonfinancial partnerships with faith-based providers.

To implement the initiative, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) ordered its twenty-eight local boards to develop strategies to select more faith-based providers, expand outreach activities, and report quarterly on the number of charitable choice partnerships. The TWC, in turn, compiled these local reports and submitted them annually to the governor. When the Texas legislature created the Alternative Accreditation System for faith-based providers in 1997, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS) was the state agency charged with approving faith-based accrediting entities that would approve and monitor faith-based providers pursuing alternative accreditation in lieu of state licensing. The TDPRS then would no longer license or directly oversee these faith-based child-care providers. It was instead responsible for ensuring that the accrediting entities complied with state law and conducted the proper oversight.

Since the 1997 Texas legislative session, it has become the case that any faith-based substance abuse treatment center may register with the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) to be exempted from virtually all regulations and standards by which state-licensed facilities must normally abide. The only requirement is that the faith-based facility in question file the appropriate form with the TCADA. The TCADA in turn maintains a list of all such exempt facilities.

In 1999 the Texas legislature went a step further by providing the framework to disperse funds to faith-based organizations. One new law instructed the Texas Department of Human Services and the Texas Workforce Commission--both conduits for federal charitable choice funds--to designate regional liaisons to encourage outreach and partnerships with faith-based organizations. Other legislation made specific funding streams available to pervasively sectarian organizations.

Although the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) doesn't have jurisdiction over the charitable choice programs targeted specifically by the federal legislation, the TDCJ has followed suit and increased its faith-based partnerships. In fact, the TDCJ dedicated $1.5 million of its 2001 appropriations specifically to fund the Inner Change prisoner pre-release program. The letter's mission is to "create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God's law, the rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of offenders to the end that they develop responsible and productive relationships with their Creator, families and communities." Prior to these state appropriations, Inner Change had to fund its own operations. But state funds now pay for the program's Bible-based counseling and Christian-centered materials.

Bush is currently pursuing essentially the same model at the federal level that he did in Texas--working first through the executive powers granted to his office and then by advocating changes through legislative and agency action. In Texas, he moved beyond the original federal legislation, allowing for partnerships with faith-based groups and actually changing state regulation and licensing procedures to favor these organizations. Bush's aggressive implementation of charitable choice earned his state an "A+" rating from the pro-charitable choice Center for Public Justice, which called Texas the "first and most aggressive" state in implementing taxpayer-funded religious services.

President Bush issued an executive order directing key federal agencies to take specific steps to increase their contracting with faith-based social service providers. He followed a two-pronged approach by directing public funds to religious social service programs while simultaneously loosening regulations over religious social service providers. He established an advisory body to support his initiative and brainstorm ways to bolster faith-based programs and created liaisons and offices within key government agencies to review policies, identify regulatory barriers for providers and increase partnerships. Bush pursued his faith-based initiative through both regulatory and legislative means. This national initiative is unfolding in much the same way as its Texas predecessor.

The Texas charitable choice record is revealing, however. After five years of aggressive implementation of the faith-based initiative--from 1996 to 2001--positive results proved to be impossible to document or measure. Instead, evidence pointed to a system that was unregulated, prone to favoritism and commingling of funds, and even dangerous for the people it was supposed to serve.

For starters, loosening regulations on faith-based providers created a refuge for facilities with a history of regulatory violations, a theological objection to state oversight, and a higher rate of abuse and neglect. Lax regulations endangered people in need and lowered standards of client health, safety, and quality of care, with some physical diseases going medically untreated. Preferential treatment of sectarian providers in government contracting opportunities also resulted, and the combining of taxpayer funds with church funds caused both to be spent on overtly religious activities. In addition, the courts ordered clients to attend unlicensed sectarian providers.

Overall, the faith-based initiative proved to be such a treacherous enterprise for houses of worship, taxpayers, and people in need that the very Texas legislators who once promoted the initiative ended up abandoning the idea. In 2001 they chose not to renew the state's alternative accreditation program for religious providers.

There are many lessons that Texas has learned from Bush's faith-based initiative. First of all, the initiative isn't a vehicle for the faith community at large but for fringe religious providers avoiding legitimate state oversight and regulations. Only eight faith-based children's facilities sought alternative accreditation in lieu of state licensing, and 129 faith-based chemical dependency programs sought exemption from state licensing as of October 2002. In contrast, over 2,000 faith based child-care centers and more than 900 chemical dependency programs--faith-based and non-faith-based alike--currently maintain state licensing.

It has proved to be dangerous to exempt social service providers from the health and safety regulations expressly created to protect vulnerable populations like children and chemically dependent people. Eliminating basic health and safety standards made operations easier for a few faith-based programs in Texas while jeopardizing the well-being of clients served by these facilities. Faith-based deregulation lowered the standard of client health, safety, and quality of care. Not only was this not in the best interest of program clients, it also established two radically different standards of patient care and accountability for Texas service providers. The very reason many faith-based chemical dependency programs sought exemption from state laws was because of their belief that state oversight hindered the faith factor underpinning their claimed successes. Most of the exempted programs had no medical component and relied instead on treating drug and alcohol addiction as a sin, not a disease.

Regulatory changes also resulted in preferential treatment of faith-based providers in government contracting opportunities. Agency policy changes, requested changes in contract and proposal language, establishment of faith-based liaisons, targeted outreach efforts, and set-asides for faith-based providers went far beyond the stated aim of leveling the playing field to actually tipping the scales in favor of faith-based providers. The application of a spiritual philosophy on program participants appears to now play a great role in determining contract and grant recipients--often outweighing the organization's record of accomplishment, experience, and cost effectiveness.

In Texas, it has become apparent that when the government funds programs where the infusion of faith through every element of the program is a defining element of success, there is simply no way to ensure that taxpayer funds aren't commingled with church funds or spent on overtly religious activities. And clients ordered to attend a faith-based chemical dependency program are often unaware that the provider isn't subject to state licensing or the health and safety regulations that accompany that license. In addition, faith-based providers deregulated at the state level could be eligible for funding at the federal level since they are sanctioned by the state and operate legally.

In sum, because Texas forged the farthest ahead in the charitable choice experiment, the state's move to reverse its involvement in the faith-based initiative is a clear warning sign for the rest of the nation.

This article is excerpted and adapted from the Texas Freedom Network's report, The Texas Faith-based initiative at Five Years. TFN is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan alliance whose members are concerned with the growing social and political influence of religious political extremists. The AHA honored TFN Executive Director Samantha Smoot with a Humanist Heroine Award in 2002. For more information about TFN and to read full the report online, visit www.tfn.org
COPYRIGHT 2003 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2081
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