House-approved version of 'faith-based' bill includes voucher plan
By The Associated Press
and freedomforum.org staff
WASHINGTON Legislation opening government social service programs to religious groups bars prayer and preaching with tax dollars unless a participant pays with a voucher.
And while it attracted little attention during last month's debate, the bill approved by the House gives Cabinet secretaries the authority to convert up to $47 billion worth of social spending into vouchers.
That would allow participants in after-school, anti-crime and other programs the chance to shop around for religious or secular services. And it could allow for significant government money for programs that weave religion into the fabric of their programs.
Under the bill approved by the House, these programs are not eligible for direct funding, a change that angered conservatives who argue that God-centered programs are among the most effective at helping people change their lives.
But under the proposal, religious groups face no such restrictions if they take tax dollars through vouchers, where the person who is being helped decides which program he or she wants to attend.
Some say that this ''indirect funding'' of religious groups is more constitutionally sound than direct funding, since it puts government one step removed from the church.
And the change helped mollify conservatives, who often prefer vouchers to direct spending anyway.
''Voucherization really does, almost like a magic wand, make most of the church-state issues that are so thorny disappear,'' said Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Officials with Americans United for Separation of Church and State disagree.
Joseph Conn, spokesman for the group, said Land is "just flat wrong about that. Vouchers are still a very controversial issue in federal courts. We think tax money should not be used to support religion whether it's through vouchers, direct grants or any other means."
Allowing Cabinet secretaries to convert programs into vouchers with the stroke of a pen raises entirely different questions. It could allow for significant changes in how nearly a dozen programs are run without any debate in Congress or elsewhere. Among the programs potentially affected: juvenile justice, housing, services for the elderly, child abuse, domestic violence, hunger relief and after-school programs.
''There has been no thought given to this voucher authority. It was just stuck in there,'' said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. ''They figure they can get money passed around through the back door that they couldn't get through the front door.''
Specifically, Scott worries that converting programs into vouchers would raise tough questions about who gets served first if there isn't enough money for everyone, what private groups would be eligible for funding and how the work of private groups would be evaluated.
The debate over vouchers has been particularly fierce in education, where supporters want to give parents money to send their children to private schools and opponents fear draining dollars from public schools. Vouchers have been less contentious in other programs, such as housing.
It's unclear which of the programs included in the bill, now pending in the Senate, might be converted to vouchers or how controversial that might be.
Specifically, the legislation approved by the House allows Cabinet secretaries to convert ''some or all of the funds'' in 10 domestic programs into ''indirect assistance,'' which could include vouchers, certificates or other means of allowing participants to pick where they get services. The only restrictions are that it remain true to the program's purpose, be feasible and efficient.
Most of the attention during the debate over President Bush's ''faith-based initiative'' has centered on the larger legal issues.
Supporters say religion is often the best way to help people solve their problems. Critics complain that it's unconstitutional for government to give money directly to a program that preaches, proselytizes or otherwise incorporates religion.
During negotiations this summer, the House agreed that any program that gets direct funding must separate out any religious portions of the program and allow participants to skip those aspects.
Conservatives complained that this would eliminate the most effective programs.
''They alienated a lot of people who should have been enthusiastic supporters of the bill,'' said Michael Schwartz, a lobbyist for the conservative Concerned Women for America.
Creating new opportunities for vouchers, which would allow for truly religious programs to be funded, solved the problem for many conservatives. ''That was a very strong plus,'' Schwartz said. ''It was good policy and good politics.''
It shored up conservative support for the legislation, said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., who was disturbed that programs he sees as effective would not have been eligible for direct funding.
But he acknowledged that the voucher provision would not have passed the House had it not been buried inside the larger bill: ''It would not have stood alone.''
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