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Support, skepticism greet Bush’s faith-based proposal

WASHINGTON (BP)–Support and skepticism have greeted President Bush’s faith-based initiatives in the days since he announced his plan for helping address the country’s social needs.

The president’s proposal gained the endorsement not only of members of his own party in Congress but Democrats such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio.

The Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s president, Robert E. Reccord, added a cautious welcome for Bush’s plan to that of the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, meanwhile, joined 18 other organizations in expressing concerns about the proposal and in calling for the president to disallow faith-based organizations in the program from considering religion in hiring employees.

Bush’s plan is designed to encourage giving to nonprofit organizations that provide social services, as well as enable faith-based and other charities to receive federal funds in their work. He initiated his approach Jan. 29 by signing executive orders to establish 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.

In a written statement, Reccord expressed gratitude for a president “who sees value in faith-based ministry and [is] optimistic about the Bush administration’s proposals to end the federal government’s discrimination against faith-based organizations. Although we have not seen the most recent proposals, we assume they preserve the religious freedom of all involved, including the caring people who provide services as well as those to whom they minister.

“However, faith-based ministries need to proceed with caution,” Reccord’s Jan. 30 statement said. “There can be a tendency over time for the government to attempt to control that which it subsidizes. Great wisdom will be required on this journey.”

Reccord said he believes strongly “in the power of faith-based ministry to change the lives of people in need.” NAMB helps underwrite almost 90 inner-city ministry centers spends more than $1 million on hunger relief while NAMB-related volunteers restore hundreds of inner-city homes each summer and are the American Red Cross’ largest disaster relief partner.

Earlier, Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he believes the proposal can be set up in a constitutional manner and in a way that does not inhibit religious belief or expression. It must meet, however, these grounds rules, he said: There must be a viable secular alternative; no religious group should be restricted or discriminated against in the distribution of funds; government aid must go only for the nonreligious aspects of the program; and it should “voucherize” the intended beneficiaries of the funds, empowering them to determine which provider to choose.

If the government attempts to censor the message of a group, then that ministry “should never, under any circumstances, accept the money,” Land said.

The Baptist Joint Committee, which includes the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Convention of Texas among its members, joined a Jan. 30 letter from the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination warning the president its members have “constitutional and policy concerns” about his plan.

In the letter, they told Bush the normal exemption for churches and other religious bodies to the ban on employment discrimination should not be extended to faith groups in his program. They asked him for a commitment that religious groups that receive government funds through his initiatives may not discriminate in employment “based on an applicant’s religion or the religious beliefs of the employer.”

The organizations said they also had concerns about the religious freedom rights of the beneficiaries of such programs and the status of state and local licensing requirements. They also said they anticipated “working with you to remedy these constitutional and policy defects.”

Among others signing of the letter were the ACLU; NAACP; Americans United for Separation of Church and State; National Education Association; People for the American Way; The Interfaith Alliance; American Humanist Association; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Catholics for a Free Choice.

The White House distributed a 17-page document Jan. 30 providing more information on Bush’s plan. Titled “Rallying the Armies of Compassion,” the booklet lists these measures among those intended to increase private charitable contributions:

— Expansion of the charitable deduction to the 80 million taxpayers who do not itemize on their income-tax form.

— Encouragement of states to give a credit against state income or other taxes for gifts to nonprofit groups that combat poverty.

— Raise the limit from 10 to 15 percent on the value of a corporation’s taxable income that may be deducted for charitable donations.

— Create a public/private partnership, known as a “compassion capital fund,” to help faith-based and other community programs to start or expand.

The document says pilot programs can be expected in the following areas: Mentoring the children of prisoners; rehabilitating inmates in prerelease programs; operating group maternity homes; and providing after-school care for low-income children.

The five federal departments that will house centers for faith-based and community initiatives are Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Labor. The centers will perform a department-wide audit to identify any policies that discriminate against or discourage the participation of faith-based and other community groups.

In commending Bush’s proposal, Hall said in a written statement, “To those who charge this initiative will open the door to taxpayer-funded religion, I would say that every faith tradition emphasizes helping the poor. This initiative’s focus on results will ensure that constitutional safeguards — both of religious freedom and for taxpayers — remain in place.”

In related news:

— A survey released Feb. 1 showed most Protestant pastors have no strong feelings for or against Bush’s faith-based ideas. In a poll conducted last year by Ellison Research, 63 percent said they favored increased funding for faith-based programs, but only 17 percent said they did so strongly. Thirty-seven percent said they opposed the idea, with 13 percent doing so strongly.

— Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers released by the White House estimated the president’s proposals would result in an additional $14.6 billion a year in charitable contributions, according to The Washington Times.

— Congregations and nonprofit organizations rate much higher with Americans than the federal government in solving local social problems, according to a study by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change reported in The Washington Post. Fifty-six percent of those polled say local churches, synagogues or mosques play an important role in solving such problems, while 53 percent say nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries do so. Only 28 percent said the federal government played a significant role. The local police led at 58 percent.