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Faith-based initiative backfires

Mental-health and addictions-treatment professionals are wary of spiritual interventions, which they associate with one religious brand: the conservative Christianity of Bush partisans.

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Once upon a time God, with some federal funding, was going to do so much.

In his early years, President Bush promoted funding for faith-based groups in order to blast social problems with the power of religious belief by unleashing the "armies of compassion." Bush predicted that his faith-based initiative would be his great legacy. And it does send an estimated $2 billion to religious charities.

But the campaign, ignored by Congress and challenged in court, has dropped off the White House talking points. After a brief mention in the 2006 State of the Union address, it was left out entirely this year.

The initiative did leave another legacy: It gave spirituality a bad name in social-service circles. Sad, since spiritual or religious beliefs and practices help millions of people recover from addiction, mental illness and criminality. Unlike other social services that provide a generic good, such as housing, rehab programs often invoke spirituality as the very means of recovery. But after six years of faith-based talk and funding by federal agencies, mental-health and addictions-treatment professionals are wary of spiritual interventions, which they associate with one religious brand: the conservative Christianity of Bush partisans. In reality, the spirituality of treatment and recovery ranges much more widely, from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to meditation, group confession, or yoga.

Bush wanted to fund social services whose key ingredient is faith, either in the program itself or as part of the treatment. Congress never signed off. So federal officials reached out to church groups and explained how to apply and win federal funding by keeping their services "faith neutral" or free of proselytizing.

And that's the hitch. If a program promotes one faith to its clients, the government cannot fund it given the First Amendment ban on congressional "establishment of religion." But if such a program sheds its religious character to qualify for public money, how important was that faith in the first place?

There is a solution. Addiction and mental-health programs can assess new clients for their spiritual and religious histories and interests and then tailor treatment accordingly. Courts have ruled that so long as a program offers a client "a genuinely independent choice," religious freedom is preserved. In March, the federal Bureau of Prisons recognized this distinction when it revised a proposal for private operators of "life skills" training programs. Those that offer a religious track would now have to provide a secular one as well.

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