Mormons Reject Bush Charity Plan

The Associated Press/April 25, 2001
By Christy Karras

Salt Lake City -- The Mormon church is a compassionate conservative's dream: a devout community that promotes clean living, self-reliance and responsibility.

It runs one of the tightest ships in the charity business, funneling millions of dollars' worth of goods and services to the needy worldwide, with very low overhead.

But the church has said no to President Bush's offer to channel government funds through religious charities, a plan facing a tough ride in Congress as hearings began this week.

"We're neutral. That's not saying we think it's wrong for every organization, but we just don't need it," said Dale Bills, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church can afford such a stance. With millions of dollars pouring into its treasury from the faithful, it doesn't need Uncle Sam's money and it doesn't want to have to change its structure in any way.

"There's nothing the government can provide that the church doesn't already have," said Garth Mangum, economics professor emeritus at the University of Utah and author of the book, "The Mormons' War on Poverty."

There's another reason others have given for rejecting the offer: the accountability to and dependence on the government in exchange for the money.

"The church doesn't want the government telling it how to do what the church sees as the church's job," Mangum said.

Charitable choice was first adopted in 1996 with the goal of opening up government programs to religious groups without forcing them to form secular spin-off organizations.

It is already law for federal welfare, drug treatment and community service programs and Bush wants to expand it to social service programs across government. But he's met opposition from both religious and secular groups who say the plan won't work.

Critics worry about government infringement on church freedoms and government funding of religious groups outside the mainstream, such as the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam. The plan would also allow religious groups to continue making hiring decisions based on religion, an exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

For its part, the Bush administration agrees that government funding isn't right for every religious charity.

"Faith leaders, organizations, and communities that perceive the slope as secularizing and slippery ought simply to opt out," said John DiIulio, who directs the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Mormon welfare services are funded by donations from the church's 12 million members, who fast one day each month and donate the money they would have spent on food that day. Members are also required to pay 10 percent of their income in tithing.

The church has always emphasized self-sufficiency. In the 19th century, members set up mutual aid systems to help one another make the trek across the plains and through the mountains to Utah. Once settled in the West, Mormons set up community farms and storehouses.

Congregational leaders, called bishops, determine recipients' needs, helped by members who provide child care, rides to work, employment assistance or food and clothing donations, Bills said.

Recipients are expected to contribute to the system as they get help. Many volunteers working at the canneries and distribution centers are welfare recipients who work to repay the charity.

"We try to help people gain self-reliance so they, in turn, can help someone else," said Kent Hinckley, director of Bishops Storehouse services. "We didn't want a dole system. That would be detrimental to the people who receive. It doesn't help them to improve themselves."

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