Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 19, 2001
Canada could follow Bush's lead
But researcher says faith-based agencies already have large role in health care, social services
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Recently, U.S President George Bush proposed new efforts to make it easier for faith-based agencies to access government funds for the social services they offer. It was an idea John Hiemstra promoted two years ago.
Heimstra, a political studies professor at The King's University College, released his report, Government Relations With Religious Non-Profit Social Agencies in Alberta: Public Accountability in a Pluralist Society, in January 1999, with no fanfare.
Now, after Bush's announcement, the idea of easier access to public funds for faith-based social services agencies is making headlines. There has also been talk that such an idea could make its way into Canadian political debate.
Hiemstra sees Bush's initiative as a reaction to society's growing secularism.
"Christendom is over . . .we live in a society that is hostile to religion," said Hiemstra.
Long gone are the days when Church and state worked collaboratively for the good of all, Hiemstra said. The push to keep faith out of the public eye has become common. But keeping faith out of public policy has prevented society from doing what is just, mostly caring for the poor and sick, he said.
Lack of funding for faith-based services is not as large an issue in Canada as in the United States because Church-based services here such as health care and education are already government funded.
But if Canada continues to follow the secularist route, it could become a serious issue, Hiemstra said.
"(Government) likes to talk about efficiency rather than effectiveness," said Hiemstra who refers to hospital and health care as prime examples of such an emphasis. "Our government is into efficiency and they're asking our churches to do it. Some of the churches are very effective in doing it this way. But (government) is not enabling the organizations to do more.
"Government has not been very sensitive to hospitals. Some (government) hospitals were set up as health factories. You enter into emergency. You get professional help, then you're ejected. That's not a preventive way of treating people.
"But if you look at the religious hospitals when they were set up, they looked at the holistic - community was important, spirituality was important, it was all important for that physical health."
Hiemstra says there is a role for religion in public policy. "Our faith is part of the public realm. It's part of us everyday. It's not possible to keep it out of politics."
His research began in 1997, when he surveyed 207 Alberta faith-based agencies. Seventy-nine completed the survey. The agencies represent a variety of faiths including aboriginal spirituality, Islam, Judaism, mainline and evangelical Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
Hiemstra concluded that religious agencies in Alberta and the government have had positive funding relationships. A large majority of the agencies said government regulations did not hinder them.
"At least this survey suggests that government's task is being done to the satisfaction of many religious non-profit agencies," Hiemstra said.
But agencies also identified a downside to government funding. The saying "Don't bite the hand that feeds you," sticks close to home for many government funded faith-based agencies. They say government funding and regulations can also lead to increased paperwork, decreased flexibility and creativity, and a need to lobby government officials.
Agencies with a distinct statement of faith as their mission and who hire only employees who adhere to that faith are more likely to encounter problems with government.
"This raises the possibility that agencies with very strongly held religious norms are coming into conflict with the increasingly secular norms of mainstream society," wrote Hiemstra in the report.
The growth of faith-based non-profit agencies indicate their importance in Alberta. Many agencies depend heavily on government funding for their operations and government, meanwhile, is becoming dependent on these agencies.
Catholic Social Services offers 119 programs with an operating budget of $33 million. Started in 1961, it is Canada's largest multi-function social service agency and receives more than 90 per cent of its funding from government.
"The social ministry of the Church is our priority," said Marc Barylo, CSS's vice-president of development and community relations. But CSS's Catholic roots have not prevented it from receiving public funds.
Barylo credits the support of the Catholic community, the credibility and professionalism of the organization's services and the positive relationship with the government as reasons CSS has not had difficulty with government funding.
"We have worked hard to nurture the relationship with (the government). They have accepted the fact that we are a Catholic organization, we are not penalized for that."
In preparing the study, Hiemstra discovered there was little written information in this area. There was no list of faith-based agencies and no previous studies on these kinds of services.
"It made me reflect on why the research is not available in this area," he said. "My conclusion is because of the general secularization in our society. There is no interest in (religion); everything is becoming secular. People will say 'Why study about something that is not going to be around in a few years?'"
But Hiemstra argues that religion is not fading away. Religious people are simply a quiet minority in society.
Hiemstra said an initiative such as Bush's, which would increase the flow of public funds to faith-based agencies, can happen here. But such an initiative also has pitfalls.
"The danger is you'll get a lot of fly by night agencies that will make a mockery of the Gospels. We really have to take our time in doing something like this.
"But the positive side is it enables the plurality of the faith to do what they can do," and to be allowed to do that "in an authentic Gospel motivated way."
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