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Bush assistant examines faith-based groups

Peter Ninneman | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

America’s poor should receive the most effective government-sponsored aid possible, regardless of whether the agencies charged with their care are secular or faith-based, assistant to President Bush Jim Towey said at Notre Dame Tuesday.

A standing room-only crowd of students, faculty and administrators packed the Hesburgh Center to hear Towey – director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives – examine the challenges faith-based nonprofit groups face in constitutionally gaining federal funding.

Titled “Compassion for America’s Poor: What Happens when God and Government Mix,” Towey’s speech also included his views on the merits faith-based over secular initiatives.

“When a government attempts to express compassion, it often fails, because government can’t form relationships with people … because the government can’t love, what are we to do?” Towey asked. “Can we do this in partnership with faith-based organization, or is that unconstitutional?”

The federal government should support successful programs, regardless of whether they are secular or faith-based, Towey said.

“When we start talking about compassion, we have to talk about effective compassion,” he said.

Towey, who said he is a Democrat, provided legal counsel for Mother Teresa of Calcutta for 12 years. In 1990, he lived as a full-time volunteer in a home for AIDS patients that Mother Teresa set up in Washington, D.C.

“The men were broken, the women [were] prostitutes and addicts,” he said.

The people needed clothing, food and housing, but there was also a “spiritual poverty” in the house, Towey said.

Towey discussed Thomas Jefferson’s views on the separation between church and state. Although Jefferson wrote of a “wall” between the two, the former president later scratched it out and attended church service in a government building, Towey said.

The Constitution envisioned a “dynamic tension” between church and state, and not a barrier keeping religion from the public square, Towey said.

“When you have a public square hostile to religious values … who suffers?” Towey asked. “The poor do.”

Towey used a recent lawsuit against the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) as an example of how the poor suffer from a lack of religious volunteer organizations. ACE co-sponsored the lecture with the Center for Social Concerns.

“The real stakeholders in that decision were not the first amendment specialists or the [American Civil Liberties Union],” Towey said. “They were those [poor] students who were denied contact with Notre Dame students in their schools.”

Towey advocated free competition for federal grants between secular and faith-based organizations based on the organizations’ effectiveness. He said while it may now appear there is competition, many large secular nonprofits often squeeze out small, effective faith-based groups – even if the larger organizations are not very effective.

“We don’t measure success. There’s no accountability … You have to be incredibly inept to lose funding,” Towey said. “It really is a cruel hoax to put forward a program that we’re not going to [keep track of].”

Towey said the federal government gave $2 billion to faith-based nonprofits last year, and that the amount continues to increase.

He said when President Bush came into power, the president believed regulations in place were “forcing” faith-based groups to secularize in order to gain funding. The groups were becoming less effective in the process, he said.

“The little groups in the neighborhoods, often minority neighborhoods, that were not well-connected politically were cut off from funds,” Towey said.