Supporters hope for faith-based initiative revival

A year ago, President Bush talked about "rallying the armies of compassion" as he ceremoniously launched his drive to increase federal help for religious groups providing social services. This week, the subject rated only a line in his State of the Union address.

Revamped legislation steers clear of the "hot-button" constitutional issues that emerged during last summer's House debate.

It's unlikely that Bush's vision of religious organizations fighting poverty, drug addiction, crime and other social ills has changed. It simply seems that he is now more willing to compromise.

Last summer, conservative Republicans pushed through a largely partisan faith-based initiatives bill (H.R. 7) that drew the ire of Democrats as well as moderate Republicans, who said it allowed religious organizations to discriminate in hiring and blurred the constitutional lines between church and state. Sharing those concerns, Senate Democrats shelved the plan, which also would allow religious groups to bid for more federal grants and expand incentives for charitable giving.

Since then, Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have been working with the White House to find common ground. And that has resulted in a stripped-down model of the plan that could be introduced next week.

Santorum says the aim is legislation that responds to the current charity crisis. "We need to re-ignite charitable giving," he said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters, noting that non-disaster contributions have dropped 30 percent to 40 percent since Sept. 11.

Santorum said the legislation would steer clear of the "hot-button" constitutional issues that emerged during last summer's House debate. Hiring discrimination is not a major issue for faith-based groups because most of those who want to work for them come from their community, he said.

The compromise bill includes tax incentives for charitable giving similar to those contained in two measures the senators introduced last session (S. 592 and S. 1300). Lieberman's spokesman, Dan Gerstein, said in an interview Wednesday that the bill would also provide technical assistance and elimination of unfair barriers facing religious organizations applying for federal funding.

Those approaches were recently endorsed by an independent working group on faith-based initiatives headed by former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa. The 33-member group--whose members range from the American Civil Liberties Union to Evangelicals for Social Action--also agreed that government agencies should not discriminate against religious organizations applying for federal funds to carry out social service activities.

"Our report did not get diverted to whether or not faith-based organizations should receive a larger portion of the existing pool of federal funds for social services," Wofford said in a forward to the group's report, released earlier this month. "Our report focuses not on how faith-based groups can get more, but how they and other civic organizations can be encouraged to give and do more, in an effective and accountable manner."

While the group steers clear of the constitutional issues, it does denounce racially discriminatory hiring practices even if the policy is based on religious beliefs. And it urges organizations using religious preferences in hiring to report such practices when applying for government funding.

The working group also recommends that religious organizations create separate tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporations for social service programs when applying for government funding to ensure greater accountability.

One of the group's members, the Rev. Barry Lynn, called the recommendations "a step in the right direction," though he said they do not address all his concerns. Lynn, who serves as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the House bill would allow religious organizations receiving public funds to hire on the basis of religion or other characteristics the group might find theologically relevant--such as marital status, sexual orientation or pregnancy.

That happened in Kentucky last summer when the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, which receives state funds, fired a therapist after discovering that she is a lesbian. A federal court upheld the agency's right to fire the worker.

Lynn says the House bill also overrides state and local anti-discrimination laws, may pressure those in need to participate in religious activities at government-funded facilities, asks taxpayers to subsidize religious institutions they may not believe in, and could ultimately threaten the freedom of religious institutions through regulations.

A General Accounting Office report (GAO-02-337) on charitable choice released this month found at least 19 states have contracted with faith-based organizations for some welfare-related services. But little has been done to assess how effective these groups are in providing social services, according to the GAO.

Earlier this month, a Wisconsin federal judge ordered the state to stop giving money to Faith Works, a drug and alcohol addiction program that relies on a Christian approach to treatment. Because the case involved state funding, the judge did not rule on the constitutionality of federal faith-based initiatives.

As to whether the faith-based initiative makes it out of the Senate, that depends on whether the Bush administration is willing to forgo the controversial components such as hiring discrimination and stick with the provisions with wide support, says Terri Schroeder, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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