Bush administration works to modify faith-based plan
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Facing criticism from both the left and the right, supporters of President Bush's faith-based initiative are working to modify the plan and to broaden its support.
The plan has been attacked by liberals for threatening what Thomas Jefferson spoke of as the "wall of separation" between church and state. Some conservatives are leery because they fear government control will hinder religious freedom.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the most prominent member of his party who supports the idea, has refused to endorse the bill because of concerns about its constitutionality.
Meanwhile, John J. DiIulio, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is Bush's point person on this issue, has been working closely with Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on strategies to obtain congressional approval.
In separate interviews last week, DiIulio and Santorum both said they were frustrated, but not surprised, that that their plan has had a difficult reception.
"When you talk about religion and politics you will invariably generate heat, but out of that heat will come light," DiIulio said. "All of Senator Lieberman's concerns are legitimate and will be addressed. I would not want any bill that Senator Lieberman does not support."
Santorum, who has worked on the issue since helping to manage the welfare-reform bill in 1996, agreed that some of the criticisms raised by opponents are legitimate, but said some are "red herrings."
He added that the concerns raised about religious groups discriminating in hiring practices were misdirected because the majority of groups that provide social services are staffed mainly by volunteers.
"People have used discrimination as a lightning-rod term. We all discriminate every day. The question is, is the discrimination based on something that is related to the job the person is being hired to do," he said.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration hopes the legislation will advance through the House Judiciary Committee, and possibly the House Ways and Means Committee, this week, said Claire Buchan, a White House spokesman.
Charitable choice, which opens government programs to churches, synagogues and other religious groups, is already used in welfare, drug treatment and community service programs. The Bush plan would expand it to 10 new social service programs, including juvenile justice, housing, domestic violence and hunger relief.
Santorum, who has sometimes had strained relations with his Democratic colleagues, enlisted the man he defeated in 1994, former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., to help the cause.
During the Clinton administration, Wofford ran the Corporation for National Service, which oversees several community service programs, the biggest of which is Americorps. He is chairing a commission that is trying to bring together liberals and conservatives to enlist more support for the plan.
Wofford, who has been active in civil rights and community service causes since the 1950s, said some of the liberal critics are wrong to worry about the involvement of religious groups.
He notes that of the 47,000 people placed in community service jobs through Americorps this year, 6,000 are working in projects run by religious groups.
Whether the involvement of faith-based organizations will expand to the level desired by DiIulio, Santorum and Wofford, depends on many factors, most of which are beyond their control.
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