Opponents ask: How much faith will faith-based plan fund?
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Republicans are preparing to push President Bush's faith-based initiative to the House floor amid uncertainty over a key point: how religious a social-service program may be in order to qualify for government money.
The president largely skirts the stickiest questions about programs that preach, proselytize or turn to God to help people solve their problems. Rather, Bush focuses on noncontroversial programs that, for the most part, already qualify for and receive tax dollars.
But the White House point man on the initiative, John DiIulio, has said that even the most religious programs those that try to convert people should qualify for some sort of funding, though he has vacillated on the details. Similarly, Bush allies in Congress have argued that some of the most effective social-service programs use religion to help people improve their lives.
Then last week, the administration muddied the waters. A top Justice Department official told Congress that religious charities would have to keep any religious programming separate. He proposed an amendment to the legislation to that effect.
"During the government-funded program, there should not be worship or sectarian activity or proselytizing," said Carl Esbeck, who runs the office for faith-based programs in the Justice Department.
That left opponents wondering if the administration had changed its position.
"The Bush administration is either in full retreat or complete disarray," said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "In the past, the president and his allies have insisted that religious groups get funding without sacrificing their religious character. Now Bush's people seem to be saying religious groups must drop all religious activity if they get public funds."
Esbeck explained yesterday that his proposal restricts only those programs that receive direct government grants. When people are given government-funded vouchers, and get to pick which programs to attend, he said, they can choose thoroughly religious options.
That was DiIulio's original position. Then, under fire from conservatives, he backed off and said that all programs should be eligible for direct grants. Yesterday, he said he agreed with Esbeck.
"We're saying the same thing in two ways," he said in an interview. Still, opponents of the initiative say they are confused.
"Before we can intelligently discuss the pros and cons ... we must get a straight answer to a fundamental question: Are you funding the faith or not?" Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., told a pair of Ways and Means subcommittees yesterday.
Under current law, religious groups can and do get lots of government money, but they must set up separate, secular organizations to keep church and state at arm's length.
Charitable choice already law for welfare, drug-treatment and community-service programs allows religious groups to compete directly for government contracts.
The House bill pending would expand charitable choice to 10 other social-service programs. It would also make changes in the tax code to encourage charitable contributions, including a new break for taxpayers who don't itemize and claim the standard deduction.
There's considerable support for the tax provisions, but Democrats noted yesterday that the backers had not said how they would pay for them. The nonitemizer provision alone will cost $84 billion over 10 years, they said, citing a Joint Committee on Taxation estimate.
The legislation is set for consideration in the Ways and Means Committee as early as next week. Chief sponsor Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., says he hopes it will reach the House floor by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the charitable-choice provisions have yet to be introduced in the Senate. The chief backer there, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., says he is open to a compromise in hopes of getting Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to sign on to the plan.
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