NY Times - April 11, 2001 - Americans like the idea of giving government money to religious groups that provide social services but only if those groups are Christian or Jewish, do not proselytize the poor and do not use religious guidelines in deciding whom to hire, a poll released yesterday found.
The poll is the most extensive yet to gauge public response to President Bush's initiative to channel more government financing to religious social services. The survey of 2,041 adults was conducted from March 5 through 18 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
The results indicate that while Americans favor the principle behind Mr. Bush's initiative, they oppose many of the details.
Three of four people surveyed said that they favored "government funding of faith-based organizations," an increase since September, when 67 percent were in favor. And three of four respondents said that churches and other houses of worship contributed to solving social problems.
But 78 percent of respondents said they would be opposed if the religious groups that received government money were allowed to hire only people of the same faith.
Permitting religiously based programs to hire and fire their staffs using religious criteria is a key part of Mr. Bush's initiative. And it is already permissible under law, having passed in 1996 as part of the Charitable Choice provision in the welfare reform legislation.
Majorities of those surveyed were also opposed to giving government money to unfamiliar, non-Western or new religions, a finding consistent with a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February.
In the new Pew poll, only 38 percent of respondents favored allowing Muslim mosques to apply for government funds, the same percentage that approved of letting Buddhist temples apply. Only 29 percent approved of the Nation of Islam's applying for government money, and 26 percent for the Church of Scientology.
Even evangelical Christian churches had only a slim majority in favor, 52 percent, barely surpassing the Mormon churches, which drew the support of 51 percent.
President Bush has said his proposal is open to all faiths, proclaiming at a prayer breakfast, "We welcome all religion." He has said government contracts and money would be awarded to social service programs on the basis of proven results, not creed.
He has also said that religious programs will not be required to omit their religious components and teachings to receive government money. For instance, a drug recovery program that includes prayer and Bible study could receive financing, as long as the government money did not directly pay for the Bibles.
But among those polled, 60 percent said they were concerned that religious social-service programs would force the people they serve to participate in religious practices. And 68 percent said they were concerned that government would interfere with religious groups that accepted government money.
"People like the concept," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "but when you question them about the specifics, there are lots of reservations they have that will have to be addressed if there is to be public support for this initiative."
The poll also showed large racial and generational gaps in the responses to Mr. Bush's proposal; 81 percent of blacks and Hispanics favor it, compared with 68 percent of whites.
And respondents older than 50 consistently said they were more concerned about keeping church and state separate than were respondents younger than 50.
Over all, the poll found no clear consensus on which agencies could best provide social services to the needy: 37 percent said religious organizations; 28 percent said federal and state government agencies; and 27 percent said secular community- based groups.