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States bypass "charitable choice'

Just five states have aggressively used a 1996 federal law to send welfare money to churches and other religious organizations, with most states bypassing the opportunity altogether, according to a 50-state Associated Press survey.

Congregations have shown little enthusiasm for "charitable choice" _ which President Bush hopes to expand to programs across the federal government _ and states have done little to promote it, according to interviews with state welfare officials, religious leaders and welfare experts.

"Religious groups and government are naturally suspicious of one another," said Paul Ladd, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which has not awarded any contracts to religious groups under the 1996 law.

Bush's health and human services secretary, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, acknowledges the idea has been a tough sell.

Only one religious program in Wisconsin has received government money to help aid people on welfare.

"We opened it up, and we didn't have as many applications as we thought there would be," Thompson said. "We didn't pursue it any more. We made it available."

First adopted in 1996 as part of the national overhaul of welfare law, charitable choice was meant to open government programs to religious groups not traditionally eligible for funding. It does not require states to issue new contracts or set aside any money. It permits such groups to receive tax dollars without having to change their predominantly religious character.

For instance, the law allowed organizations to continue displaying religious symbols and to consider religion in hiring workers.

Programs may include religious content, but they can't use government money to promote or require those they are helping to participate in religion.

Later, Congress extended the concept to federal drug treatment and community development programs. But charitable choice attracted little attention until this year, when Bush proposed a major expansion. He has met stiff opposition from a diverse group of religious and secular groups, and the proposal faces a tougher trip through Congress this time.

Backers hoped charitable choice would create a groundswell of interest from religious groups that had never considered applying for such aid or had been shunned.

But nearly five years later, the AP survey found 31 states and the District of Columbia have not awarded any government welfare contracts to religious groups that would not have been eligible otherwise.

An additional 14 states report sporadic use of charitable choice _ a handful of contracts at most.

Just five states _ Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Texas _ have embraced it, spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

But that's not typical.

State officials and welfare experts cite several reasons for the slow start to charitable choice, which allows religious groups to receive money directly:

Congregations are largely unaware of the opportunity.

Religious groups remain wary of government money _ fearful they will become burdened by regulations that could restrict their religious practices.

It's hard for new players to break into government contracting. Congregations often don't have the experience or lobbyists like major federal contractors.

Many contracts don't pay until after the services are provided, meaning new organizations must have enough of their own money to get started.