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'We can't proselytize'

When working with federal money, groups keep religion separate

By Elizabeth Dunbar

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Sue Pohl's faith drives her to help teen mothers improve their lives at a shelter here.

But it's a faith she's careful not to show. As Pohl counsels the teens and watches them gain life skills during their three-month stay, she doesn't preach, lead them in prayer or otherwise expose them to her beliefs.

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"We can't proselytize," said Pohl, program director of LifeHaven, which is run by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

The reason lies partly in Lutheran Social Services' own philosophy, but it also has to do with money. Most of LifeHaven's funding comes from a $200,000 federal grant from the department of Health and Human Services.

A White House list provided to The Associated Press showed $1.17 billion provided to faith-based organizations in 2003, including $11.4 million to more than a dozen groups in Minnesota.

Some of the groups in Minnesota and elsewhere were surprised to be on the list, saying they were secular, and the White House acknowledged that the list comprises groups believed to be faith-based.

Those who acknowledged their faith-based status said they have always been careful to separate their views from their work. Many of them received federal grants long before President Bush announced his faith-based initiative in 2001.

For people like Pohl, that's meant balancing the work they do with the personal faith that often is the reason they're doing it.

"It's important to take care of young people who have not been cared for. It's a personal mission of mine," Pohl said.

The right environment

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LifeHaven works closely with Incarnation Lutheran Church of Shoreview, but Pohl said church members mostly provide financial support and help with house repairs. The shelter houses up to six teen girls and their babies.

"We want an environment where people can choose to pray and not to pray," she said. "They can feel free to find their own connection to a higher power -- if that's something they want."

The philosophy is similar at Emma's Place, a townhome complex in Maplewood for homeless and nearly homeless families. The program is run by Emma Norton Services -- a group that works closely with the United Methodist Church -- and receives grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Staff at Emma's Place run an after-school program and a support group for mothers, some of whom are recovering from chemical dependency. Anything explicitly religious has to be initiated by clients, said Shelly Hickey, a family case manager.

"For a lot of them, the basis of their recovery is spirituality," Hickey said. Yet staff members are careful to encourage spiritual dialogue for those who are interested without preaching to the rest, she said. "Religion is never pushed so far that it would turn you off," she said.

Keep them separate

Many faith-based organization directors say the guidelines for using federal money are simple: programs receiving grant money must take place at a different time or in a different place than religious activities.

Questions are rarely raised about how the rules should be interpreted, said Kelly Hitchcock, director of affordable housing for Ecumen. The Lutheran-based nonprofit manages dozens of housing communities for people 50 and older throughout the state.

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"We're here to use the grant for what it's been given to us for," he said. That doesn't mean changing the organization's identity or mission, he said.

Last year, Ecumen received grants at three of its facilities for new staff positions to help residents with everything from finances to medical concerns. One of the facilities -- Augustana Lutheran Homes in Litchfield -- received money to remodel one of its apartment buildings.

Hitchcock said his group has heard from the federal government at least once, when a HUD official questioned the use of a cross on marketing material. "Sometimes they take issue with that," he said. Hitchcock said the cross "is not meant to exclude anyone."

But sometimes staff members have to remind themselves to be more inclusive than before they got federal grants.

"My personal feeling is that I want (our services) to be very faith-based, but when I'm working with the HUD building I have to be more careful," said Judy Hulterstrom, director of housing at Augustana Lutheran Homes.

Gary Reierson, president of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, said federal agencies have scrutinized faith-based organizations to make sure critics don't have grounds for arguing that federal money is being used for religious activities.

"We know we're being watched very carefully," said Reierson, whose organization has so far used $345,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to 43 small faith-based and secular groups in the Twin Cities area. The money pays for things like computers and nonprofit management training.

The faith-based initiative didn't provide money specifically for faith-based groups. Instead, the focus has been on "leveling the playing field" and encouraging faith-based groups to apply for the grants, Reierson said.

That's meant more competition, which Reierson said can be positive. "Faith-based groups should have to compete with other groups based on their results and outcomes," he said.

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