For God and Country

For a South Oak Cliff church considered a model for mixing faith and government, the line between church and state is thin indeeda

"I am not familiar with any study that I would defend in a scientific community" that supports the notion that faith-based providers are somehow more effective, Cnaan acknowledges.

But he, like others attracted to the promise of what faith can do, is not ready to let go of the idea that churches can deliver better value than the government providers of social services.

"There is evidence that they are definitely less costly than government," Cnaan says. "They have their own buildings, for instance."

Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."
AP/Wide World Photo
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."

For some, including religious leaders, the notion that churches provide more efficient programs seems dubious. David Cole leads a congregation he calls Worship Without Walls, and he plans to launch a low-overhead fund-raising service in Thanks-Giving Square downtown. "Churches in general tend to be bureaucratic and inefficient," he says. "I don't think they should get any more."

Coincidentally, the same week Bush signed his order creating the new office, a federal appeals court ruled on a program in Beaumont public schools. Under a program called "Clergy in the Schools," school district Superintendent Carrol Thomas Jr. invited religious leaders to provide counseling to students during school hours, much like the Project Turnaround ministers do. The school district had another mentoring program, but in this effort, the superintendent only tapped ministers, the vast majority of whom were Protestant, and no lay people. The superintendent said he wanted to "provide meaningful dialogue between the clergy and students regarding civic virtues and morality." The clergy are told to refrain from discussing religion, identifying their church, wearing distinctive dress that would reveal their religious affiliation, or offering to pray with the students. If the students asked for prayer, they should direct the children to their parents or own clergy--a measure taken presumably to ensure the separation of church and state.

At DISD, the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship mentors theoretically undergo training that covers similar territory. A pamphlet that DISD administrators distribute to prospective volunteers states: "Volunteers shall not propose any religious doctrines or beliefs, so that each family's beliefs and religious habits shall be respected."

In practice, DISD area Superintendent Brew says the training takes place on such a sporadic basis that school principals are expected to pick up the slack. But the DISD principals who have the Oak Cliff mentors in their schools do not seem overly concerned about making sure such training takes place. "There is no training necessary," says Roosevelt High's Georgetta Johnson. "[The mentors] get their training from the church." She had received a copy of the district guidelines for volunteers from Brew shortly after the Observer spoke to the DISD administrator.

In Beaumont, public school students and their parents challenged the constitutionality of the program. Earlier this year, a district court ruled that the plaintiffs didn't have standing because they weren't participants in the program. The judge granted summary judgment allowing the Beaumont schools to continue the Clergy in the Schools program.

But since an appellate court weighed in, the picture hasn't been so clear.

On the first appeal, three judges from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the program primarily advanced religion and excessively entangled government with churches. The school district appealed to the full 15-member court. By a 10-5 vote last month, the judges sent the case back to the district court to get more facts.

Closer to home in Grand Prairie, schools Superintendent David Barbosa tried to dismantle a program that had clergy coming to the high school lunchroom, but he confronted considerable resistance from his trustees. In September, Barbosa said that the youth minister would no longer be allowed on campus. "The district had been allowing the ministers to come to lunch to presumably talk with one of the students," he says. "But some would come carrying 10 boxes of pizza, and you know what happens. Everyone walks over there."

The outcry that followed his decision, however, forced Barbosa to backpedal. "There were some folks who were not happy," he says. Last month, he revised his overall visitors' policy. The ministers are allowed in, but they must follow a set of 11 guidelines, including not proselytizing or recruiting and not disseminating information to students or staff without prior approval of the superintendent.


Thomas Talbert third-grader Javarius Erving stays back with his mentor from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship while the rest of his class files off to the music room.

"OK, how many more we got?" the tall black minister asks the skinny 9-year-old as he watches the student copy down a spelling list that includes the words feast, mammals, and swallow.

"You're on number 18," the minister notes, peering down at the page. "Great job. You did that in no time at all." On the bulletin board, the boy's 100 percent paper from the previous day indicates that Javarius had little trouble with spelling.

When all the words are copied, the boy and his mentor walk out. It is 10:30 a.m., time for the older man to leave and for the boy to get to music class. "Give me five," the mentor says, extending his palm. The boy slaps down his hand, but he doesn't alter the serious look on his face.

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