November 2007 Church & State | People & Events

A recent White House-sponsored conference on faith-based initiatives aimed at the Latino community took on the air of a religious observance, with clergy-led prayers and songs praising Jesus Christ.

The Sept. 24 “White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Conference on Hispanic Youth” in Wash­ington, D.C., included two invocations by Christian clergy, one before a videotaped welcome by President George W. Bush and the other preceding Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ key­note address.

A report by the Roundtable on Reli­gion & Social Welfare Policy noted that the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, “led the audience in a Spanish-language song praising Jesus before explaining why the re­sources, expertise and integrity of religious org­anizations make them best equipped to change communities. No one else can de­liver with such commitment as the Latino faith community, he said.”

Not everyone was comfortable with the approach. One attendee from a secular charity in Puerto Rico said the conference was informative but said she was concerned about the religious tone of Rivera’s speech.

“I’m personally a Christian, but I’m from a secular organization,” she told the Roundtable, “and I wonder how some others may have felt about a speech at a government conference that was so religious.”

Americans United staff members who attended the conference said they could sense a certain amount of tension in the room.

“There was no pretense of welcoming non-Christians,” one staffer said. “A speaker started her speech with, ‘I hear there are a lot of Pentecostals here. Can I get an amen!?’”

Before the first invocation, organizers announced that they would observe a moment of silence for those who didn’t pray. But the Rev. Ruben Ortiz then asked people “who are with me” to stand for the prayer.

Another AU staff member said there was definite hesitation among representatives from secular organizations when Rivera began to sing the Christian devotional song.

The AU staffers also raised concerns that Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Com­munity Initiatives, put religious grantees at risk for litigation by misrepresenting religion’s proper role in federally funded programs.

Hein said he “didn’t think it would be a problem” for non-paid program volunteers to discuss religion because they weren’t paid with public funds. This likely left attendees with the false impression that they could include proselytizing in a program funded with tax money.

The conference marked yet another attempt to push the faith-based initiative, one of Bush’s signature legislative ef­forts. Another recent Roundtable article offered more evidence that the Bush administration is directing tax aid to religious rehabilitation programs, even though some of them lack professional accreditation.

A new government report finds that “religious organizations have become significant players in providing recovery support and clinical services” through an experimental voucher program. Indeed, one-third of payments from the president’s “Access to Recovery” (ATR) program have gone to faith-based organizations.

The Department of Health and Hu­man Services announced in the same report that it would make $96 million available through ATR over the next three years.

The Roundtable article notes that many faith-based recovery programs “do not meet licensing requirements or medically-sanctioned standards of state-approved services. Faith-based organizations receiving government money through vouchers are allowed to use religiously-based curricul[a] in treatment” without government oversight.