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90 Florida programs share faith-based funds

An innovative program that helps refugees with their finances is among 90 Florida programs that shared $67-million under President Bush's faith-based and community initiatives, an analysis by the Associated Press concluded.

Homeless organizations, abstinence programs for teens, Head Start for youngsters and housing for the elderly are among the programs receiving the lion's share of the money in Florida in 2003. The grants are part of the $1-billion the government gave to social service organizations nationwide it considered to be faith-based.

Bush pledged to provide federal funds to religious groups to perform social services, saying they often are able to do a better job than governmental agencies.

Civil libertarians have expressed concerns that channeling government money through religious groups violates the separation of church and state.

But Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and once headed Florida's social service agency, said the administration has been clear that "government money is not to fund religious activities."

One organization receiving faith-based money was Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, which got $1-million in 2003 to set up individual development accounts for refugees. Over five years, the program has received $3.65-million in grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Karen Rieley said the Jacksonville group is designed to help people and not to proselytize.

About 86 percent of its grant money went to match refugees' earnings and savings. The program enrolled 1,921 clients and opened 986 bank accounts. The individual development accounts are an antipoverty program designed to build assets for low-income refugees with a goal of promoting economic independence.

Elsewhere, Head Start programs designed to increase school readiness of young children in low-income families accounted for more than about 40 percent of all the faith-based money coming into Florida in 2003.

Many county governments received a total of $17.7-million to provide housing in 2003. Some of the programs were administered by charities with religious connections, including Volunteers of America of Florida in Tampa.

The other huge category receiving faith-based money was for housing or rent assistance for low-income seniors, where five religious organizations received about $25.1-million. One was the Presbytery of Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, which received $5.9-million in 2003.

Abstinence Education, a program supported by President Bush, was the focus of two grants in 2003, including one to Pinellas Crisis Pregnancy Center in Pinellas Park, which received $223,642.