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Senate OKs, House approval expected for scaled-back faith-based initiatives bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate has overwhelmingly approved a scaled-back version of President Bush’s faith-based initiative that provides incentives for charitable giving.

In a 95-5 vote April 9, senators passed the Charity, Aid, Relief and Empowerment Act, S. 476, which is designed to increase giving to faith-based and other organizations that provide social services to the needy. The House of Representatives also is expected to adopt the measure, which is sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., and Joe Lieberman, D.-Ct.

The measure enables Americans who do not itemize on their tax returns to receive a deduction of as much as $250, or for couples filing jointly $500. More than two-thirds of taxpayers do not itemize. The bill also allows tax-free contributions from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) to charities and provides incentives for food donations from farms, restaurants and corporations.

The bill, however, gained strong bipartisan support only after Santorum agreed to drop provisions that critics said could foster discrimination and threaten church-state separation. Before Santorum’s compromise, according to news reports, the CARE Act included a protection for religious organizations that would have made clear they could receive federal funds while retaining faith-based criteria for board members and while displaying scriptures, religious symbols and religious art in their facilities.

The president commended the Senate’s action but said more could be done to support the work of America’s charities.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to improve the CARE Act legislation,” Bush said in a written statement, “and I continue to urge Congress to take additional steps to end discrimination against faith-based organizations that have a proven record of helping people in need realize a better life.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also applauded the vote but called for approval of the deleted portions of the bill.

“It’s hard to find a reason to be against the CARE Act,” he said. “We know on an average non-itemizers give a higher percentage of their income to churches than itemizers do. So it’s going to increase the resources available to churches to minister to people in need.

“I am sorry Sen. Santorum could not muster sufficient support for the other aspects of his bill, but I am glad he took the bite of the apple he could get. He can come back and take a bigger bite next year,” Land said.

Even Americans United for Separation of Church and State approved of the bill’s passage by the Senate. “This bill shows that Congress can help charities without shredding the Constitution,” said AU Executive Director Barry Lynn. AU remains “gravely concerned” about White House attempts to enact other parts of its faith-based initiative, Lynn said.

Bush issued an executive order in December accomplishing even more than the excised portions of Santorum’s version would have achieved. A future president can rescind Bush’s orders, however, while a law would be more difficult to change.

After Congress failed to pass his faith-based initiative in the last session, Bush signed an order permitting organizations to enter into contracts with the federal government while maintaining their religious identity and being able to hire employees in accordance with their beliefs. That order enables faith-based organizations to display religious symbols in their building, to select board members based on their beliefs and to consider faith when making employment decisions. It also prohibits, however, government funds from being used in “inherently religious” exercises, such as worship and religious education.

“If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross or a crescent on the wall, or a religious commitment in the charter,” Bush said at the time. “When decisions are made on public funding, we should not focus on the religion you practice; we should focus on the results you deliver. [G]overnment can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith.”

The government, however, “has no business endorsing a religious creed or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching,” the president said.

The faith-based initiative can be carried out in ways that protect the Constitution and expand services to the needy, but appropriate safeguards are needed, Land has said. Among those, he has said, would be vouchers to be used by beneficiaries at the social-service agencies of their choice. Land also has warned religious groups to be careful about increasing their exposure to government intervention in their ministries.

Among other aspects of the CARE ACT passed by the Senate are:

— repeal of the expenditure limit for grassroots lobbying by charitable organizations.

— Funds to provide technical assistance to small community and faith-based groups.

— Restoration of more than $1.3 billion over two years for the Social Services Block Grant program, which provides funds used by states to help the needy.