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Decade Later, Debate Goes on Over US Government Faith-Based Partnership

A truck filled with food boxes arrives at the doors of the Church of the Nazarene in the Philadelphia suburb of Colingdale in time for the weekly "Family Dinner." Neighborhood families who are struggling to feed themselves are invited in for a hot meal and free groceries.

Lisa Anne Gulley winces from the constant pain of an abscessed tooth as a volunteer fills her shopping bag. Gulley hasn't been able to afford dental treatment since she was laid off from her job, let alone pay the bills.

"We lost our home, we lost everything," she said. "So I come for God and they give the suppers and the food."

Churches and other religious institutions in the United States receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxpayer money to provide social services such as feeding the poor.

This cooperation between government and religion is known as the Faith-Based Initiative, and it has grown in the decade since President George W. Bush set up federal offices to promote it. But critics say the initiative violates the constitutional prohibition against establishing an official state religion.

"We're not establishing any religion," said Max Finberg, director of the one of the offices set up by President Bush, the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "What we're doing is making sure that everybody in need who qualifies for the programs that USDA is mandated to offer is getting this information and this help and putting food on the table."

At the Nazarene church, pastor Donna Sarog says anyone is welcome to ask for help.

"We don't insist on them hearing the Gospel before they eat, at all," she said. But she adds that as an evangelical Christian, it is her obligation to "share Christ, whether verbally, or just in our actions."

As the visitors devour steaming bowls of chili in the church cafeteria, a volunteer reads aloud a passage from the New Testament about Jesus' early followers sharing a meal together.

Finberg says churches distributing food purchased with government money may not proselytize. But he concedes that the line between proselytizing and living out one's faith "gets a little gray in certain aspects."

"When you are required to pray in whatever tradition in order to receive food or to receive benefits," he added, "that crosses the line."

One church near Collingdale was kicked out of the faith-based program after a Muslim man reported being proselytized, according to Alan Edelstein, director of the Family and Community Service of Delaware County which administers its state-funded food assitance program.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania gives $15 million to its counties to feed the poor. Delaware County's share - more than half a million dollars - is used to buy food and deliver it to food pantries located at churches throughout the county including the Nazarene.

Edelstein says the county chose to work through churches because they were already active in low-income neighborhoods and provide their own volunteers and staff.

"You really get the best bang for the buck this way," he said.

University of Pennsylvania social policy professor Ram Cnaan says it would be "ostrich-like" to try to alleviate hunger in America without acknowleding a role for churches. Cnaan, an expert on faith based organizations, says there are more churches per square mile in America than any other establishment.

"So is it to the advantage of the American taxpayer and citizen? Yes. Is it a threat to the separation of church and state? Maybe," he said, "but in this case we should have a constitutional decision," he says, referring to the absence of a Supreme Court ruling on the government's faith-based initiatives.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State based in Washington, DC, is trying to mount a challenge on the basis that some religious organizations employ only people of their own faith - a practice that is prohibited for tax-funded organizations.

AU director Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, worries that some churches are taking advantage of hungry people.

"People feel pressured in circumstances of vulnerability to do whatever the person offering the sandwich wants them to do," he said, adding that if America wants to eliminate poverty, it should improve the public welfare system.

"If we had a system that was comprehensive," he said, "you wouldn't need to find a church here, a synagogue there, a mosque somewhere else, to provide these services."