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Faith-based legislation to be delayed, report says

WASHINGTON (BP)–Legislation promoted by President Bush to increase federal funds to religious charities will be delayed, possibly as much as a year, according to a March 14 news report.

Instead, the president’s faith-based proposal will be split into two measures, the Senate’s lead sponsor said, in order to allow the White House to refine the controversial aspect of the plan, The Washington Post reported. The Bush administration agreed to the postponement in Congress, according to The Post.

While at least one aspect of the proposal has received widespread support, the portion expanding funding to faith-based organizations that provide social services was greeted by concerns or protests from religious leaders spread across the conservative-liberal spectrum. Some expressed concerns the initiative would harm churches’ freedom or support cults, while others opposed it as a violation of church-state separation.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., said he would divide the faith-based initiative, introducing soon a bill including a proposal to allow nonitemizing taxpayers to deduct their charitable donations, The Post reported. That suggestion has been warmly greeted. It has been estimated it would result in an additional $14 billion in charitable giving.

The controversial aspect would have an “incremental approach,” Santorum told The Post.

“My sense is we’re looking within the next year for [the White House] to work out the bugs,” Santorum said, according to The Post. “My sense is the administration will continue to work on this and work through this within the agencies. They want to build a consensus.”

Santorum, however, still plans to introduce legislation including the provision on “charitable-choice,” or “beneficiary-choice,” as he calls it, this spring, a spokeswoman for the senator said. He will introduce the bill to encourage charitable gifts March 21, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as the lead Democratic sponsor, said Melissa Sabatine, communications director of the Senate Republican Conference. Santorum is chairman of the conference.

In the House of Representatives, legislation including both aspects of Bush’s proposal will be introduced March 21. The lead sponsors are Reps. J.C. Watts, R.-Okla., and Tony Hall, D.-Ohio.

Another prong of the plan is the establishment of faith-based offices in five federal departments to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy. Bush created the centers by executive order in late January.

Southern Baptist church-state spokesman Richard Land said he was “delighted” there would be more of an opportunity to discuss the “possible flashpoints and try to construct a program that will be carefully structured to safeguard constitutional requirements and protections.”

“We should always remember the words of Roger Williams, who insisted that there should be a wall separating the state from the church, not the distorted and impenetrable wall erected by the ACLU and Americans United [for Separation of Church and State] but a wall nevertheless,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Roger Williams said that a wall was necessary to keep the wilderness of the world from corrupting the garden of the church, and we would do well to heed his words. The church should be reaching over the wall in an attempt to domesticate the wilderness of the world but should be ever vigilant to ensure that the weeds of the world don’t infect the garden.”

Williams was a Baptist preacher who championed religious liberty in 17th century America.

From the introduction of Bush’s faith-based initiatives in late January, the ERLC’s 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.

The White House has expressed some support for vouchers as a solution to the controversy. In a voucher plan, the grant would go to a beneficiary who would choose what social service agency, religious or secular, in which to use it.

Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs said the voucher proposal “deserves to be studied and debated” but still expressed reservations about its use with organizations that are “pervasively religious.”

“I don’t think it will provide an acceptable alternative,” said Walker, the BJC’s executive director. “‘Charitable choice’ is the wrong way to do right — regardless of how the government funds are funneled.”

The BJC and The Interfaith Alliance issued a document March 13 designed to provide churches with guidance on the faith-based initiative.

“Charitable choice” was enacted as part of the welfare-reform measure in 1996. Bush’s proposal would widen the number of programs in which “charitable choice” could be utilized.

It actually was expanded last year, when President Clinton signed into law a measure permitting drug addicts to use vouchers at faith-based treatment centers, Santorum said.

“Everyone talks about, ‘[Bush’s proposal] is new; this is a violation of church and state,'” Santorum told The Washington Times. “It’s in law already. The question is: ‘How do we implement it, and how do we do it in a way that is nondiscriminatory?'”

In related developments:

— The BJC/TIA booklet, “Keeping the Faith,” criticizes “charitable choice,” encouraging “pervasively religious organizations” not to accept government funds. Such entities can establish separate organizations to provide social services, but those agencies may teach religion or evangelize only with private funds, according to the document.

The BJC and TIA applaud the president’s acknowledgement of religion’s important role in helping the needy, but “we believe religion will be harmed, not helped, by plans” to fund providers that are pervasively religious, Walker said in a statement. “What a tragedy it would be if a house of worship accepted government’s money to help the needy and lost its soul in the process.”

— Marvin Olasky, a proponent of “compassionate conservatism” and a journalism professor at the University of Texas, said government’s refusal to fund pervasively Christian agencies, such as Teen Challenge, would discriminate against the most effective programs and show preference for one religious view, nonevangelization in social services, over another, evangelism throughout its program. In a March 7 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals’ annual meeting, Olasky, also editor of World magazine, said, “Discriminating against effective programs that evangelize is saying that it’s more important to keep Christophobic critics happy than to help many poor people.” Tax credits and vouchers are alternatives, with vouchers possibly the best option, Olasky said, according to his text.

— Columnist Cal Thomas, meanwhile, criticized the voucher alternative in a March 14 commentary in The Washington Times. “How many alcoholics or drug addicts, for example, will use their vouchers to seek spiritual help?” Thomas wrote. “Isn’t it more likely that because of their addictions, they will seek programs that provide only food and shelter so that they might continue their addictive behavior?” The solution is to provide tax breaks so people and corporations can invest in the faith-based programs of their choosing, Thomas said.

Others to express reservations about the faith-based proposal on funding religious charities were Jerry Falwell, a Baptist pastor and Moral Majority founder, and Pat Robertson, Christian Coalition founder. They voiced concerns about possible restrictions on churches’ religious freedom and aid to some religious groups, such as Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

As a solution to the latter concern, Robertson proposed a screening process by the White House of faith-based organizations, with those qualifying listed in a government registry. They would be eligible to receive private gifts for specific projects. The government would grant a tax credit, not direct funding.

In a March 7 column for Beliefnet.com, a website dedicated to religious issues, Land said of Robertson’s proposal, “I suspect many religious people join me in finding that to be intolerable.”

In explaining the concerns of conservative Christians, Land wrote their worry about government oversight of “how churches spread their message” combined with “the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups causes many religious Americans grave reservations.”

He said each house of worship must decide whether to accept government aid. “As for me and my house, I would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole,” Land said.

In addition to maximizing the voucher alternative, other safeguards the plan must have in order to be constitutional and successful, Land says, are:

— There must always be a viable secular alternative.

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

— All government aid must go for the non-faith-based phases of the program; the ministry should fund the religious aspects, including instruction and materials.

— Religious activity must be voluntary for recipients of services provided by a faith-based entity.

He also recommended churches that choose to participate should establish a separate charity to operate the ministry.