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Changes in faith-based legislation ‘absolutely essential,’ Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–A legislative version of President Bush’s faith-based initiative has cleared two congressional committees, and the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy agency welcomed changes related to religious liberty made in the measure.

The House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee approved the Community Solutions Act, H.R. 7, in a 23-16 vote July 11. Earlier, the House Judiciary Committee marked up the bill with a 20-5 vote. Both votes were along party lines, with Republicans in the majority.

The bill is based on a proposal by Bush to increase private giving to charities and to increase government support of religious efforts to provide social services. He established a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, as well as centers in five federal departments, to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy.

The version approved by the Judiciary Committee included the following among its amendments:

— No funds provided by the government may be used for religious “instruction, worship or proselytization.”

— Recipients of aid from government-funded organizations cannot be required to participate in religious activities.

— A religious organization providing services should segregate direct government grants it has received from other contributions.

Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the revisions “absolutely essential changes.”

“I’m pleased that the Judiciary Committee has seen fit to make alterations which put more stringent constitutional safeguards in place to make certain that in any grant program there is separate record keeping and accountability and that no one can be either forced to participate in a religious activity to receive a service or be refused service for faith reasons,” Land said.

In another controversial portion of the legislation, tax-exempt organizations maintained the freedom to consider religion in hiring.

Some supporters of the initial concept of funding faith-based organizations criticized the compromise agreed to by the White House and approved by the Judiciary Committee. The new version penalizes groups, such as Teen Challenge, that incorporate biblical instruction in all of their activities, its supporters-turned-critics say.

The measure approved by the Ways and Means Committee dealt with the giving-incentive portion of H.R. 7. Included was a provision enabling taxpayers who do not itemize on their forms to deduct for charitable contributions.

The committee-approved version was scaled back dramatically. Bush’s proposal on nonitemizers’ deductions would have cost about $84 billion during a 10-year span, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated, according to Associated Press. The committee’s version would total only $6.4 billion over the same time frame.

Counting other aspects of the bill, including incentives for more giving by corporations, the total cost of the Ways and Means package is $13.3 billion over 10 years.

The versions approved by the two committees will have to be reconciled before going to the House floor for a vote.

Bush’s initiative has been plagued by controversy since it was unveiled early this year. The turmoil continued in recent days as news of an arrangement between the White House and the Salvation Army was reported.

According to The Washington Post, the White House had committed to issue a rule protecting government-funded religious organizations from state and local laws that prohibit employment discrimination, including on the basis of “sexual orientation,” which includes homosexuality. The Salvation Army, in turn, was to spend between $88,000 and $110,000 a month to lobby on behalf of the legislation, The Post reported.

After a day of criticism July 10, especially from Democrats in Congress, the White House issued a statement saying it would not pursue the regulation sought by the Salvation Army. In its statement, the White House said the House legislation provides protections ensuring “religious organizations have the right to hire individuals who share their religious faith. They also ensure that such organizations comply with civil rights laws.”

Among opponents of the initiative that have church-state concerns are the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, The Interfaith Alliance and People for the American Way.

Some conservative Christians, including the ERLC’s Land, also have expressed reservations about aspects of the faith-based plan. Land has called for the program to be “voucherized” as much as possible, thereby alleviating concerns about government interference with faith-based groups if it directly funds them. In a voucher plan, the grant would go to a beneficiary who would choose the social-service agency, religious or secular, in which it would be used.

Other safeguards the plan must have in order to be constitutional and successful, Land has said, include:

— There must always be a viable secular alternative.

— No religious group should be restricted or discriminated against in the distribution of funds.

The use of government funds by religious organizations was approved by Congress in its welfare reform measure of 1996, and the concept was expanded last year to allow drug addicts to use vouchers at faith-based treatment centers.