White House Defends Plan For Faith-Based Environmental Grants

Jan 15, 2003 12:42 PM EST

Already under attack from the Left and increasingly from the Right, the White House is defending a plan to expand its Faith Based Initiative in order to fund religious groups dedicated to environmental causes like "global warming."

Jerry Lawson, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, recently advocated the expansion of President Bush's program while speaking to a group of environmentalists in Washington.

Some conservatives immediately complained that Lawson was proposing to take the Faith Based Initiative in a direction not originally intended by the president. One critic of the idea called it "tragic."

But, in a Thursday interview with David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, called the EPA's efforts to include religious groups that advocate green causes a "great" idea.

"We are seeking to expand the initiative across the government because we think the involvement of faith based and community groups is important," Kuo said.

"If EPA or the Department of Veterans Affairs or any other organization wants to involve faith and community based groups, that is great, and we are fully supportive of that," Kuo added.

Critics From The Left And Right

Even before the recent conservative backlash, the Bush Faith-Based Initiative was under attack from liberals for allegedly violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government from establishing religion.

President Bush believes the faith based plan is necessary to eliminate the barriers now hindering religious-affiliated groups from participating in government-funded community and welfare services.

But groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State oppose the idea.

"It will be interesting to see whether this will be as popular with some of his political allies as the other aspects of the program have been," said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United.

Conn believes the proposal to include environmental causes in the awarding of grants under the Faith Based Initiative is the "logical outgrowth of the kind of agenda [Bush] has been promoting."

"The Bush administration seems to think that religion is the answer to every social ill and now they are expanding the initiative to environmental problems as well," Conn said. "It is one area that does point up some of the contradiction in this whole Faith Based Initiative movement."

A free market environmental watchdog group also assailed the White House and the green movement for seeking to expand the mission of the Faith Based Initiative.

"It's tragic. Unfortunately, all too often, as is the case with various federal programs, they come into existence and essentially take on a life of their own," said Dave Riggs, executive director Greenwatch.

"Despite Bush's lauded intentions, the bureaucracy is taking this as opportunity to further fund liberal green causes," Riggs added. "There has always been a very cozy relationship between the federal environmental bureaucracy and the big green groups ... the EPA alone doles out millions and millions of dollars every year to green causes."

Riggs said he is not surprised by the recent events, especially with former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman currently administering the EPA.

"Whitman has a strong track record of working with big green environmental groups, sometimes against the president's agenda," Riggs said. "It does not surprise me that this idea is it coming out of her EPA," he added.

As director of the EPA's Energy Star program, Lawson helps small business and religious institutions improve their energy efficiency.

When he met with environmental and religious groups Dec. 19, Lawson said he was seeking ideas about how religious groups might be able to promote green causes like climate change and pollution control through use of the White House Faith-Based Initiative.

"A couple of days ago, one of the higher-ups at EPA called me, and we talked about grants. This person said to me ... 'look if you hear of good ideas of faith-based groups that are environmental proposals, let me know,'" Lawson told the gathering.

"So, I would like to offer myself as a conduit," he told the participants at the Worldwatch Institute symposium entitled, "Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World."

'Armies of Compassion'

President Bush, in a Dec. 12 speech announcing a series of executive orders on faith based initiatives, said the program was necessary to "help clear away a legacy of discrimination against faith-based charities" in order to "rally and encourage the armies of compassion."

"Government can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith," Bush explained.

Kuo echoed the president's comments about the initiative.

"What the president really envisioned is a determined attack on need led by America's charities and churches and synagogues and mosques and philanthropies and foundations," Kuo explained.

"That's what this initiative is about. It is about encouraging the full participation by America's armies of compassion in meeting the very serous social needs that exist," Kuo added.

Despite this clearly stated social service mission, Kuo said he welcomes a much broader interpretation of the president's initiative.

"If there are anti-global warming federal funds available because there is that program, then a faith-based group should be able to apply for that and if in the federal grants process that includes the application process, if those people come out at the top of the heap, great," Kuo said.

Lawson also conceded that the faith-based initiative was originally designed to address unmet social needs, but said the federal grant program could be expanded to include green causes.

"The original vision and the current vision is still social services ... What I am doing and other people at EPA are doing is looking at the programs we have available today that can benefit faith-based groups," Lawson said. "Those of us at EPA and the environmental movement are recognizing that the faith community is also interested in the environment."

When asked how green causes could qualify for faith-based grants, he was open to suggestion.

"We are trying to figure that out at this time. I have become somewhat of a student of White House faith-based initiatives ... The money can't be used to proselytize or promote your religion, but the money can be used to meet objectives that EPA has out there anyway, such as addressing climate change or water pollution," Lawson explained.

"And you can work through your faith-based group to achieve these things," he added.

Gary Gardner, director of research at Worldwatch, thought Lawson's proposal was worthy of consideration.

"There is a role for the government to bring religious groups and environmental groups together," said Gardner, a sponsor of the Dec. 19 meeting.

By Marc Morano