Diverse Religious Groups Poised to Test Bush's Charitable Initiative

February 19, 2001
By Laurie Goodstein

Philadelphia -- After eight years in prison, Joseph Fabio now lives in a halfway house next to a funeral home here where counselors have helped him steer clear of drugs, find a job in a gas station and contain the uncontrollable anger that earned him a murder sentence at age 18.

His three months in the program have been ``a blessing,'' Fabio said, and like many of the residents, he complained only that, for some reason, the kitchen served nothing but vegetarian food. When he was told that the cuisine is restricted because this halfway house is affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas, Fabio looked as if he had been ambushed by ``Candid Camera.''

``They're around still?'' he asked, recalling having seen monks in pink robes in airports years ago. ``I didn't know.''

For almost 20 years, Hare Krishna devotees in Philadelphia have received millions of dollars in government contracts to run a network of services, including a shelter for homeless veterans, transitional homes for recovering addicts and this halfway house for parolees.

The unusual collaboration between government agencies and a religious group that depicts God as a baby-faced boy with blue skin offers a glimpse of the challenges ahead for President Bush's initiative to expand government support for religious social service programs.

Bush's new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officially opened for business on Tuesday. The president says that religious programs will not be judged on their beliefs, but on the results of their work.

``We do not impose any religion,'' Bush said at a recent prayer breakfast. ``We welcome all religion.''

The president's assertion may be questioned in the coming days. While established charitable programs, like those run by Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, are expected to have little trouble winning further government support, it is the smaller programs run by less traditional faiths that are likely to test the president's promise to avoid discriminating on the basis of belief, and the public's acceptance of his approach. The intitiative also runs the risk of sparking conflict. Already, one group has tried to prevent another from being allowed to participate.

Bush signed the executive orders launching his initiative flanked by a score of Christian ministers, two Jewish leaders and a Muslim imam, and hailed the event as a ``picture of the strength and diversity'' of the country. But if the religious portrait of the nation is a great stained glass window, those leaders represent only a few large pieces of glass.

Now, members of a wide variety of religious groups, some once considered far outside the mainstream, are busy preparing proposals for government financing to support the kinds of programs that Bush has said he will make his focus: literacy, sexual abstinence and substance abuse treatment. The Church of Scientology plans to seek support for its drug rehabilitation and literacy programs. The church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification U.S.A., plans to promote its abstinence programs in the schools.

``You will see us deeply involved in any area where we can partner in practical projects with government,'' said the Rev. Phillip D. Schanker, the Unification church's vice president for public affairs, who had on his desk a copy of a magazine he had just subscribed to about government contracting opportunities.

And Krishna leaders, who have centers in 40 American cities, have been phoning David D. Dobson, executive director of the Philadelphia programs for the Hare Krishnas -- a Hindu sect often stigmatized in this country but well established in India -- to discuss how to follow his example and become government contractors.

Bush's effort could provoke new questions about what constitutes a legitimate religion. In the case of the religious organizations that would be applying for government money, one definition of religion likely to be applied grows out of the Supreme Court's ruling in a 1965 case involving draft exemptions. In that case, the court defined religion as ``a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption.'' By any measure, the definition is broad.

``One of the big issues that people haven't talked about much is that some very controversial religions could get active in this,'' said Philip Jenkins, the author of ``Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History'' and a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University.

``Running a faith-based program raises the question, what faiths are out of bounds?'' Jenkins said. ``Either you fund all faith groups, even groups you radically don't like, or you fund none. I have nothing against funding everybody, but I think people need to be prepared for the issues that might arise. How do you distinguish between a Methodist and a Moonie? The answer is, you can't.''

To win their $2.5 million in government contracts in Philadelphia, the Hare Krishnas have removed almost all evidence of their religious affiliation, said Dobson, a former monk who decades ago abandoned his saffron robes for a gray blazer. On the vegetarian food, he refused to compromise.

Dobson's program used to have a sign that said, ``Hare Krishna: Food for Life.'' But then some corporate sponsors complained, he said, and the words ``Hare Krishna'' were removed. Now the organization is called simply Food for Life.

``It makes people uncomfortable, and mostly people at the government level,'' Dobson said. ``Being a Krishna organization, in the early days, there was a lot of prejudice and there was pressure to tone down anything religious. We certainly put in the closet a lot of our religious philosophy.''

Keith Patterson, a house supervisor who sat at the front door keeping track of the parolees leaving for work, said the Krishna-sponsored program was totally secular. He contrasted it with the government-financed Salvation Army program where he used to work. ``There were chapel services every Sunday,'' Patterson said, and residents were required to attend devotions at 7 a.m. daily. ``They were trying to get you back to God.''

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