Kansas City, Mo. — If there is still a national debate over the wisdom of using government money to back "faith-based initiatives," you couldn't tell Thursday.
More than 500 religious leaders from 31 states attended a White House conference on how to attract federal grants for church-led projects like teaching people to read, feeding the homeless and healing the sick.
"Faith-based groups are always trying to do what they can," said U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., who represents the west side of Lawrence in Congress.
The conference at the Kansas City Convention Center had a Lawrence feel to it. Ryun's daughter, Catharine, a Lawrence native who has served five years in the White House's faith-based initiatives program, emceed the event. The Rev. Bill Vogler, of Lawrence's Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church, gave the opening prayer.
"Finally, faith-based organizations are getting support from the government," Catharine Ryun told the Journal-World. "And that's helping the American people, the folks who are poor and needy and need assistance."
When the program made its debut in 2001, critics accused the Bush administration of breaching the wall between church and state. Those headlines have largely disappeared, even as federal funding for such efforts continues to grow.
Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told the conference that more than $2 billion in federal grants went to religiously based social service agencies in 2005. In Lawrence, for example, the Salvation Army receives roughly $48,000 a year for its homeless services.
Several officials praised faith-based programs for their response to Hurricane Katrina - a response so effective, Jim Ryun said, that the federal government had spent only $18 billion of $62 billion set aside for recovery.
And conference attendees were given a 15-minute seminar about the new Medicare drug program, widely described as confusing and intimidating to senior citizens, and asked to relay that information back home.
"As leaders, you have the responsibility to give all the information that is in your power to give," said Jennifer Hawkins, an official in the White House faith-based initiatives office, before describing the Medicare benefits.
In other cases, officials said, the private efforts save taxpayers money. Fred McLean, with Good Samaritan Health in Wichita, said his mobile health and dental clinic helped that city's poor while saving money.
"If I'm seeing uninsured people, then they don't go to the emergency room," he said.
Towey said one function of the conference was to ensure religious groups didn't proselytize on the taxpayer's dime.
"You can't preach on Uncle Sam's money," he said, "if you take federal dollars."