Murkowski plans 'faith-based' office

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

ANCHORAGE Gov. Frank Murkowski said Wednesday he intends to establish a faith-based office and advisory council to work with religious and other social service agencies.

''State government has a long history of working with non-faith-based organizations,'' said Murkowski spokesperson Becky Hultberg. ''This new initiative is to deal with faith-based organizations, which the state has not done as effectively.''

Murkowski announced his plans at a teleconference meeting of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Task Force. The 18-member group was established last year by Lt. Gov. Loren Leman as part of President Bush's larger, nationwide effort to support social service agencies associated with religious organizations.

The proposed Alaska Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the governor's advisory council would function within the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The office will employ four people to work with social service agencies in various roles, including assistance in grant writing and technical help. Small grants will be available to help agencies develop programs.

''The bottom line is helping people,'' Hultberg said.

Concerns over the separation of church and state have stymied the Bush initiative, which was launched as an effort to open government programs to churches, synagogues and other religious organizations. Al Sundquist, president of the Alaska chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he has the same concerns about the Alaska office.

''Our country has been getting along secular for many years and should continue that way,'' said Sundquist, who listened in on the task force's teleconference meeting. ''I believe I was the only one at the meeting who was opposed to the idea.''

Hultberg said the office will not be exclusive to such organizations.

''This is essentially a new opportunity for agencies that deliver health and social services, including agencies already working with the state,'' Hultberg said. ''It's about partnerships.''

Details about the new panels are still being worked out and the future of the task force is unclear, Hultberg said.

''This next step takes the task force recommendations and gives their ideas permanency within state government, so their good work is carried on and implemented,'' she said.

Where the office will be based has not been determined, Hultberg said. But it will be established this year with $420,000 from several state agencies, including health, labor, education and corrections departments.

Permanent funding would be included in the governor's budget proposal for the next fiscal year, Hultberg said.

An administrative order to create the advisory council is expected within the next two weeks.

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