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After eight months of lobbying from advocates, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has blessed a faith-based approach to healing social ills, creating a state office that will help Utah's religious and secular charities compete for federal dollars.

The one-person Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives also will encourage charities to collaborate with government agencies on programs aiding vulnerable children and the elderly, homeless, uninsured, disabled and others.

Many nonprofit groups lack the staffing and know-how to tap into local, state and federal grants, said Division of Housing and Community Development Director Gordon Walker, who is charged with shepherding the initiative.

"On the other hand, many public agencies are not aware of the resources, such as volunteers, that faith-based and nonprofit organizations can bring to the partnership," Walker said.

Walker said Friday he is still exploring how to best organize the office. He had no projections for how much money he hopes to raise for charities, nor how much it will cost him to do it.

"Many of the things we hope this office will do we're already doing," said Walker. "I'm doing this on an evolutionary basis rather than a revolutionary basis. This is not a big splash."

Utah's cultural landscape - the predominance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - has traditionally caused state leaders to shy away from any perceived marriages of church and state. Former Govs. Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker rejected similar proposals.

But Gordon Walker said the church-state concern is overstated, noting that the LDS Church has traditionally shunned public money because it doesn't need it, nor the strings attached.

Under federal law, religious organizations that receive government funds are forbidden to discriminate against clients on religious or other grounds. They can deliver programs containing religious messages, but states must also provide clients with secular alternatives.

Huntsman could not be reached Friday. But a spokeswoman said he favors tapping into the growing federal cache of faith-based grants.

Utah comes late to the game, joining 24 other states with faith-based offices. But Walker is optimistic the initiative will pay off.

A $1 million investment to create a similar operation in Ohio yielded $22 million for programs to reduce divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth rates, said Ohio's director, Krista Sisterhen.

The sticking point for Utah, however, may be whether there are enough non-LDS charities to make an initiative worthwhile.

A 2003 survey of 186 faith-based charities, conducted by the low-income-advocacy group Utah Issues, showed robust interest among groups such as the Episcopal Community Services and Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family Services.

But Catholic Community Services, Volunteers of America and the Salvation Army have more established programs that already compete for grant money and don't need help, according to the study.

"It can't hurt," said Linda Hilton, head of a Utah coalition of religious groups combatting poverty. "But we're already tapping into this money. I have a whole guide about 2 inches thick of faith-based grants that you can get for social justice programs."

Developing faith-based solutions

* The idea of offering church groups public money for social initiatives was raised during the drafting of the 1996 welfare reform act under former President Clinton. But it has gained momentum under President Bush, who opened a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Twenty-four states followed suit.

* Conservatives have questioned Bush's commitment to the concept, which continues to draw fire from Democrats and civil rights groups who argue it is unconstitutional for the government to underwrite religions.