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Jack Cowley, a born-again Christian and former Oklahoma prison warden, was fresh from the annual Washington prayer breakfast with President George W. Bush and he was pumped. “This is stirring the imagination,” says Cowley, referring to Bush’s ardent expression of faith and his announcement of the creation of “faith-based initiatives” to allow religious organizations that provide social services to compete for federal dollars side-by-side with secular groups. “I can see revival.” Cowley sees Bush’s vision better than most. For the past three years, he has run a program called InnerChange, a “Christ-centered” approach to preventing prisoners from returning to a life of crime. Cowley’s group works in prisons in three states, most notably Bush’s home state of Texas, and has been the beneficiary of government support there. Texas — using programs like InnerChange — has served as Bush’s laboratory for the national program he rolled out last week. And while the results there have been more symbolic than dramatic, his faith-based initiatives are gaining traction and encountering little resistance. For Cowley, last week’s announcement could mean good things. Bush has voiced his support for spreading the Christian-based prisoner education program into the federal prison system. “The religious faith-based groups have been discriminated against,” Cowley says. THE ASHCROFT AMENDMENT The groundwork for Bush’s faith-based approach was laid in part by newly confirmed Attorney General John Ashcroft. It was Ashcroft who, as a U.S. senator from Missouri in 1996, introduced what was known as the “charitable choice” amendment to the welfare reform package passed that year. Ashcroft’s amendment for the first time allowed religious groups to receive federal funds for job training, counseling, and day-care programs. Bush’s plan foresees an expansion of that. Following the passage of the welfare reform bill, several states implemented their own version of Ashcroft’s charitable choice plan, including Texas. As governor, Bush signed legislation that made it easier for religious groups to receive government funds. The biggest splash has come in the criminal justice arena, with Cowley’s InnerChange program. “We’re real excited about it,” says Don Kiel, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s director of religious programs. In 1997, the state allowed Cowley’s Christian group to take over a wing of a state prison in Sugar Land, Texas. The state pays for the 200 prison beds, the meals, and the guards. InnerChange, which was founded by Watergate conspirator turned evangelical activist Charles Colson, provides the volunteer teachers and counselors. Kiel says the state consciously avoided paying for the work of the InnerChange staff. “We were real careful,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that it was open to any inmate regardless of their religion, that the inmates were volunteers, and that people received no special privileges for being in the program.” The 18-month program consists of a rigorous 16-hour day in which prisoners take classes in religion and life skills. When the prisoners are released, they are mentored in the community by program volunteers. “We’re not trying to convert anyone,” Kiel says. “It’s just like any program. Our goal is to reduce recidivism. Whatever it takes to keep those people from coming back.” Yet, there is no denying that there is a specific Christian component to InnerChange’s work. Cowley embraces that. “I know it isn’t very correct to say this these days,” he says. “But it’s a God thing.” The prisoners who volunteer for the program, he says, “know that it is Christ-centered, Bible-based, thoroughly Christian. They can leave anytime. If you leave this program and are not a born-again Christian, I expect you to act like one.” Kiel says it would be premature to judge the results of the program. But the early returns, he says, are encouraging. Of the 80 inmates who enlisted in the program and have been paroled since, only five have been re-jailed. That’s about 6.5 percent — significantly lower than the state’s usual 30 percent recidivism rate. Bush has noticed. “He was very impressed,” Cowley says. Even Democrats have taken notice. In fact, last year, during the Clinton administration, a group of federal prison administrators came to Sugar Land to tour the InnerChange unit. Cowley says he was asked to develop a pilot program for the federal system, but he says he balked when told that he would have to make it a “multi-faith” one. “You ask the Muslims to do a Muslim program,” Cowley says. “We’re going to do a Christian program.” InnerChange, however, is expanding. This year, it moved into prisons in Kansas and Iowa. Cowley adds that Texas wants it to expand the number of prisoners in the program there. For that reason, the group, for the first time, is asking for direct assistance from the Texas Legislature. It wants $500,000 to help meet the expenses of expanding the program. “That will be one of the big tests,” Kiel says. “The legislature has never been approached on this.” FAITH IN TEXAS In Texas, Bush’s initiatives also led the state Department of Human Services to enter into contracts with religious-based social service providers for counseling, assistance, and job-training programs. However, direct funding of faith-based organizations constitutes only a small part of the department’s activities. According to Michael Jones, a spokesman for the department, faith-based groups can receive funds through a program called Innovations, which focuses on aiding community groups. This year’s budget for the program is $7.5 million — a sliver of Texas’ state budget. Of the 29 projects that received money under the program, about eight were faith-based providers, Jones says. That amounts to about $2.2 million over two years. Other estimates have had the state spending to date more than $10 million on faith-based welfare programs. That’s not much considering that Texas dedicates a half billion dollars a year to welfare services. However, a job training program funded by the department fell under a legal attack by the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project last year. Using contract money, the program, according to a Texas federal judge, purchased Bibles as classroom materials and covered the salary of the program’s executive director who taught evening Bible classes. “The course’s only text was the Bible,” says Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress. But last week, the judge dismissed the lawsuit as moot, because the program was no longer being funded by the department. “There is no evidence other than this one time expired contract … of a State policy of funding religious indoctrination,” the court said. “That was a strong ruling from a federal court,” department spokesman Jones says. “And it’s a major victory for anyone who wants to help needy people.” WALKING THE LINE Critics of Bush’s plan fear that the government will trample the First Amendment by favoring religious groups over secular ones — or by favoring certain religions over others — when handing out federal dollars. “When they start receiving government money it runs against fundamental civil rights laws,” says Richard Fultin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee. Under the plan, which will be formally introduced as legislation in Congress later this month, Bush will create an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House to facilitate grants to religious groups. He will also establish sub-offices in the federal agencies that perform the bulk of the government’s grant making: the departments of Labor, Justice, Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. Bush has maintained that the federal money will go to underwriting specific services offered by religious groups — and will not fund advancement of a specific religious message. He will also require that secular alternatives to faith-based social services be made available. “Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities,” Bush said last week. John DiIulio, who has been tapped to head the White House effort, could not be reached. Supporters and detractors of Bush’s plan agree that the federal government is going to have to watch where its money goes more closely than ever. “We’re not talking about 200 Ashcroft amendment grants, but 150,000 grants,” says Michael Horowitz, a former Office of Management and Budget official under President Ronald Reagan and a proponent of the plan. That’s precisely what worries people like Fultin, who wonder just how the government will be able to monitor whether recipients of federal money will be preaching along with providing services. “It’s difficult to see how it will be policed without entangling the government with the religion in a way it is trying to avoid,” Fultin says. “It will look like the government is only going after religious organizations.” Moreover, the Ashcroft amendment allows religious groups to use religious affiliation as a criterion for hiring. In other words, Christian groups are free to hire only Christians. “It amounts to government-funded religious discrimination,” Fultin says. Ostensibly, Ashcroft’s Justice Department will play a major role both in overseeing the program and defending it when the expected legal challenges to the plan materialize. The DOJ itself became a significant provider of federal money to local communities during the Clinton administration through its Office of Justice Programs. The former director of that office, Laurie Robinson, says she favors Bush’s plan. “It’s my strong view that we see many offenders really able to turn their lives around when they get beyond the lifestyle they are accustomed to,” Robinson says, “and often they do that by thinking in the spiritual realm. It calls on the best in human beings.” Robinson says her office under Attorney General Janet Reno occasionally gave money to religious organizations that were members of community coalitions, but she recalls that “we had to jump through a lot of hoops with our legal counsel to do that. There’s a host of different kinds of regulations on both ends.” It is those regulations that Bush hopes to ease. And Robinson believes that the monitoring of grants to ensure that the government isn’t aiding a particular religious viewpoint is possible. “For people familiar with grant administration, it’s a challenge in the same way as preventing people from embezzling funds is,” she says. “Each grantee would have a grant monitor, on-site visits, telephonic contact, and regular meetings with the grantees. If you tell them what the money can and cannot be used for, they are going to try and do that.” The American Jewish Congress’ Marc Stern isn’t so confident. “You are relying on a lot of trust. There is no reason to think anyone’s really going to watch this,” he says. “What government bureaucrat is going to stick his neck out and cut that program off?”

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