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Groups divide over Gore’s support for funds for faith-based organizations

WASHINGTON (BP)–Vice President Al Gore’s sudden support for providing federal funds to religious groups in order to solve social problems met with conflicting responses from organizations that deal with church-state issues.
Speaking at a Salvation Army site in Atlanta, the vice president said federal law allowing churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based groups to use grants to provide welfare services should be expanded to address such problems as drug abuse, homelessness and youth violence.
“Let us put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy for building a better, more just nation,” Gore said in a text of his prepared remarks. “Many people in the faith-based organizations want their role to be not exemplary, but strategic; not to be merely a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician, but to have a seat at the national table when decisions get made. Today I give you this pledge: If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration.”
This “new partnership,” as Gore called it, should be “accompanied by clear and strict safeguards,” he said. They include, Gore said:
— No government promotion of a specific religious view.
— A prohibition on “direct proselytizing.”
— A secular alternative.
“I believe strongly in the separation of church and state,” Gore said more than once. “But freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion. There is a better way.
“Today, we also need to ensure that believers of all faiths are free to engage in national dialogue and community action — without feeling that they must hide their religious beliefs.”
While organizations that espouse strict separation between church and government criticized Gore’s plan, the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said he not only is pleased the vice president recognizes the significance of faith-based ministries but believes church-state concerns can be addressed.
“I cannot help but believe that working together we can find ways to successfully involve faith-based ministries as part of the solution and still respect our precious heritage of religious liberty,” ERLC President Richard Land said. “One avenue of approach would be to give the decision-making authority on whether people avail themselves of a faith-based alternative to each individual or family and make the faith-based alternative one of several available. And if they choose the faith-based alternative, that ought to be their right, and they certainly shouldn’t be penalized by being denied the government assistance because they choose to exercise it through a faith-based alternative.
“We simply must find creative ways to maintain legitimate understandings of separation of church and state and yet make it possible for people who wish to do so to avail themselves of the alternatives for solving these problems furnished by faith-based charities.”
Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, called Gore’s safeguards “necessary but insufficient.”
“A war on poverty doesn’t have to include a war on religious liberty and church-state separation,” Rogers said in a written statement. “Contrary to Mr. Gore’s comments, helping religious ministries with tax money ultimately hurts them.”
Such federal support would bring regulation, which could include audits and inspections by the government, she said. “Tax money and government regulation and control should stop at the church-house door,” Rogers said. She said churches could “spin off separate, religiously affiliated entities to provide secular social services with tax money.”
The board of directors of People for the American Way, a civil liberties organization that positions itself on the left on issues, unanimously approved a resolution opposing Gore’s approach.
“This proposal is bad for the Constitution, and it is bad for religion,” the resolution said. “We call on the vice president to reaffirm his previous support for church-state separation by withdrawing this proposal.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also attacked Gore’s plan.
The approach Gore would like to expand is known as “charitable choice” and originated in the 1996 welfare reform law. That provision allows charitable and religious organizations to receive federal funds to provide services such as counseling, job training and food. Last year, Congress expanded “charitable choice” to help address poverty under the Community Services Block Grant program. The Senate approved only the week prior to Gore’s May 24 speech a measure to incorporate the same approach toward juvenile crime prevention and rehabilitation.
As the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000, Gore joins his two primary adversaries, for the time being, in support of “charitable choice.” Former senator Bill Bradley voted for Ashcroft’s measure. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the leading Republican candidate, has made cooperation with faith-based organizations an important part of his state administration.
Sen. John Ashcroft, R.-Mo., the author of the 1996 “charitable choice” provision, called Gore’s support a “very important asset to the efforts in Congress to expand this provision to other areas” of the law.
In his speech, Gore also called for more private backing of religious organizations. Corporations that provide matching funds for employees’ donations should include faith- and values-based groups in such programs.
“For too long, faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring,” Gore said. “With the steps I’m proposing today, they will no longer need to depend on faith alone.”
The vice president did not say whether he now would approach education in a similar manner. Gore, as well as President Clinton and most Democrats, has opposed the use of vouchers by low-income students at religious schools.
Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, chairman of the House of Representatives Republican Conference, was encouraged by Gore’s speech but said he “can’t help but feel that his change of heart looks politically motivated.
“It looks as if Vice President Gore has recently had a Damascus road experience considering his past voting record in the Senate and the House,” Watts said in a written release.