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January 23, 2003
Bush Plans to Let Religious Groups Get Building Aid
ASHINGTON, Jan. 22 The Bush administration plans to allow religious groups for the first time to use federal housing money to help build centers where religious worship is held, as long as part of the building is also used for social services.
The policy shift, which was made in a rule that the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed this month, significantly expands the administration's contentious religion-based initiative.
The White House says it wants to end discrimination against religious groups. Opponents say the policy breaches the separation of church and state.
Current regulations generally prohibit religious groups from using federal housing and community development grants, which totaled $7.7 billion last year, to build or rehabilitate structures. The new rules, still subject to final approval by housing officials, allow the use of federal aid to acquire, rehabilitate or build centers used for religious and specifically approved nonreligious activities, so long as no federal money is used for the religious section.
A church could erect a building using federal money to create a shelter for the homeless in one part and private money to create a sanctuary in another part, officials said. A synagogue could use a grant to rehabilitate part of its building for a counseling center for AIDS patients or the poor. A Muslim group could apply for federal money to upgrade the lighting and equipment in a room in its mosque to allow it to be used as an counseling center for single parents.
Bush administration officials, who have made religion-based initiatives a cornerstone of their agenda, said that religious organizations had historically been discriminated against in the fierce competition for federal grants and that the change was simply intended to level the field to compete for the pool of money.
"We see no reason to exclude religious organizations from participation in these programs if there can be a reasonable mechanism to ensure that a program has no particular religious connotation one way or another," the general counsel of the housing department, Richard A. Hauser, said in an interview. "There's no reason you can't have a cathedral upstairs and something that would look like any other room in the basement" for counseling.
Civil rights advocates, legal experts and Congressional critics attacked the change. They said it moved the government dangerously close to financing the building of houses of worship in violation of the separation of church and state.
"This is probably the most clearly unconstitutional aspect of the White House's faith-based initiative that we've seen up to this point," said Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "What this does is take federal money that is serving the neediest of the needy in our society and diverts it to the bricks-and-mortar construction of churches and sanctuaries and other places of worship."
Opponents said the change forced the government into the difficult position of having to determine which part of a building is used for worship and which is for social services.
"You run into the nightmarish problem of having the government monitor what goes on inside churches" and sanctuaries, said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who promised to seek hearings on the change. "Are we going to start sending in the inspector general to charge people with committing a bar mitzvah?"
A spokeswoman for the housing department, Diane Tomb, said the proposed change grew out of misinterpretations of past policy that effectively blocked religious groups from access to housing programs.
In a New York City case, Ms. Tomb said, a religious group was wrongfully blocked from activities in a common area of a publicly financed housing project. "That's discrimination," she said.
President Bush made headlines in a speech on Dec. 12 when he bypassed Congress and issued an executive order to make it easier for religious groups to receive federal money for welfare programs.
Like most of the debate in the two-year push for initiatives that involve religious groups, the order focuses on the social services that many groups rely on the government to pay for. In the change, released on Jan. 6 without fanfare, officials proposed a potentially far-reaching shift that centers not on services but on how buildings run by religious groups are financed and built.
The rules have consistently banned grants for buildings with any religious component, officials said. The current regulations for one popular home investment program, for instance, ban grants to "primarily religious organizations" and say housing projects "must be used exclusively" for secular activities.
The new regulations set up a system for programs at mixed-use sites "where a structure is used for both eligible and inherently religious activities." The change does not spell out how the proportion would be formulated. Officials said that would have to be determined case by case.
The public has until March 7 to comment before the department is scheduled to issue its final approval. The change would apply to all HUD grants, including programs for economic development in low-income areas, emergency shelters and housing aid for single-parent families, young people and AIDS cases.
Many funds like the widely used community development block grants are sent through cities, which give them to local groups. Other funds go directly to private providers.
Advocates for religious groups applauded the shift, saying it sends a message of inclusion and predicting that it will open financing avenues that had been closed to many groups.
"This should be a welcome step," said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, president of the National 10-Point Leadership Foundation, a coalition of groups that represents primarily black churches. "It's entirely reasonable."
Some civil rights advocates and Congressional critics promised to fight the change. Several legal experts said the new policy might not pass muster under a 1971 Supreme Court case, Tilton v. Richardson, that restricted aid to religious institutions.
"The question is whether you can legitimately allocate, say, 80 percent of a building for religious use and 20 percent for secular use and say that the federal money is only paying for the secular use," said Douglas Laycock, a professor and religious liberties specialist at the University of Texas Law School. "The answer to the allocation question right now in the courts is no, you can't do it."
A professor at the Cardozo Law School, Marci Hamilton, said that it might be difficult for government lawyers to argue that they can truly separate a religious and social functions in a building and that many religious groups might not even want to try to do so.
"Once religious entities start arguing that any portion of their building is for nonreligious purposes," Professor Hamilton said, "they start opening themselves up to all sorts of problems like their tax-exempt status as religious institutions. It's a whole Pandora's box."
Billy Terry, who oversees religious issues for the National Congress for Community Economic Development, said that the change sent "an important message, and it denotes the tenor of this administration."
Although many religion-based groups do a good job of distinguishing between religious and social service components, Mr. Terry said, separating them can prove messy.
"It's like trying to take the sugar out of cupcakes," he said. "The line can get blurred."
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