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Report: White House to delay, maybe change faith-based plan

WASHINGTON (BP)–The White House is postponing action on a portion of its faith-based initiatives and may amend part of its plan, according to a March 12 news report.

Some religious leaders have expressed concerns about President Bush’s plan to provide federal funds to religious charities, and the administration is seeking to mute some of the criticism, The Washington Post reported.

The plan “may need to be corrected in some areas,” the White House’s Don Eberly told The Post. Eberly is deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

“We’re postponing,” Eberly said. “We’re not ready to send our own bill up.”

Among reservations voiced by conservative Christian leaders are fears the program could lead to government interference that would harm churches’ spiritual vitality and freedom, as well as opposition to funding some religious groups, such as Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church. Among those voicing doubts about the program have been Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson; and Baptist pastor and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.

The president expressed confidence the program could be shaped to address the concerns.

Some “are worried that once government gets in their lives, government will force a change in their religion,” Bush told The Post. “There are some who worry about, once government gets involved, government will force religion on people. And I am mindful of those concerns, and our policy will understand that. We’ll fashion a policy — that we have already fashioned — that will, I believe, answer those critics.”

The plan includes proposals that have generated little, if any opposition. Included are a change to permit taxpayers who do not itemize to deduct their charitable gifts and the establishment of centers in five federal departments to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy. The latter does not require congressional approval.

The White House expressed some support for vouchers as a solution to the controversy over direct government funding of religious charities. 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.

“It is a way out and one that seems to be win-win,” Eberly said, according to The Post. “If this becomes problematic, vouchers is certainly an option we’d consider.”

Bush told The Post, “There’s a lot of concern about proselytization and that we should not use taxpayers’ money to fund groups that proselytize. My attitude is, you fund an individual.”

From the beginning of Bush’s faith-based initiatives, the ERLC’s Land has called for the program to be “voucherized” as much as possible, thereby alleviating the concerns about government interference with faith-based groups if it directly funds them.

In a March 7 column for Beliefnet.com, a website dedicated to religious issues, Land said he supports “constitutionally safeguarded, faith-based initiatives” with this warning: “Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries. Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry and the hurting worth that exposure?

“That is a question each church, synagogue, temple and mosque must decide for itself. As for me and my house, I would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole,” Land said.

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.”

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

In a column for USA Today, Robertson expressed concerns not only about restrictions on churches’ religious liberty but about some potential recipients of government funds.

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 his Beliefnet column, Land said of Robertson’s proposal, “I suspect many religious people join me in finding that to be intolerable.”

Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said in an interview with Beliefnet he supports Bush’s plan but he doubted his ministries would apply for such funds. His “problem is where it might go under [Bush’s] successors,” Falwell said. He also expressed concerns about the funding of cults and other religious groups.

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