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White House makes more changes to aid faith-based groups

WASHINGTON (BP)–The White House has proposed more policy changes to expand the ability of faith-based organizations to use federal funds to provide social services.

The Bush administration announced Sept. 22 the recommendation of six new regulations and the completion of four policy changes.

Under the proposed regulations:

— The Departments of Justice and Education will protect organizations and beneficiaries from discrimination based on religion in federally funded social service programs.

— The Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs will protect the rights of religious organizations to take religious belief into account when hiring employees.

— The Department of Labor will allow beneficiaries desiring job training under the Workforce Investment Act to use vouchers for religious training services in order to gain employment at a church or other religious organization.

In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized a policy change proposed earlier that enables religious organizations to compete for $8 billion in grants. The new regulations make clear the funds may not be used to purchase, build or renovate any facility used as a grant recipient’s primary place of worship.

The Department of Health and Human Services also completed regulations that give faith-based groups access to nearly $20 billion in grants.

Some of the cabinet department actions are designed to implement President Bush’s December 2002 executive order protecting the religious hiring rights of federally funded, faith-based groups. That executive order permits organizations to enter into contracts with the federal government while hiring employees in accordance with their beliefs and while maintaining their religious identity.

Bush has been unable to get such changes through Congress but has used his power to issue orders changing executive branch policies instead.

“This is not about funding religion but about funding results and identifying the most effective providers and knocking down the wall that separates the poor from these programs,” said Jim Towey, director of the White House office of faith-based and community initiatives.

“What these regulations do is put us one step closer to a level playing field. And we have to remove these barriers, and one of these barriers” is religious hiring prohibitions, Towey said. “I think the real winners are addicts and the homeless, as well as taxpayers.”

Church-state separationist organizations contend the loser is the First Amendment’s restriction against government establishment of religion.

“The only thing this administration wants to tear down is the wall separating church and state,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has commended Bush’s initiative but has said it needs to have appropriate safeguards. These include a secular alternative to the religious social service, no government funds for religious exercises and voluntary religious activities for recipients of services.

Bush’s order last year 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 government funds from being used in “inherently religious” exercises, such as worship and religious education.

Both houses of Congress have approved legislation this year to provide incentives for giving to charitable organizations that provide social services. The House of Representatives approved its version in mid-September, while the Senate passed a bill in April. Because of differences in the bills, a conference committee of members of both houses will negotiate a version for final passage.

Among the bills’ provisions is one enabling Americans who do not itemize on their tax returns to receive a deduction for charitable giving. More than two-thirds of taxpayers do not itemize.

In addition to regulation changes Sept. 22, Health and Human Services also announced grants totaling $8.1 million to 60 faith-based and community organizations. Among these are 50 one-time grants of about $50,000 each to meet the needs of at-risk youth and the homeless.

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