Faith-based initiative unlikely to pass this year, senators say
By the Associated Press,
WASHINGTON Congress is unlikely this year to pass a version of President Bush's faith-based initiative, the measure's chief Senate booster acknowledged this week.
"It's always difficult to pass something, and this year there is especially heavy competition," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on Oct. 9. "We are working on it, but the time is short."
Santorum complimented the efforts of six religious organizations that provided food, shelter, clothing and counseling to survivors of last month's terrorist attacks.
"These groups have stepped in and filled the breach and shown what they can do," he said. "We should give them a chance to do more."
Bush's plan, which would expand the role of religious charities in social services, passed the House in July, but the Senate has taken no action, partly because its chief Democratic supporter, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., objects to some provisions that he feels could undermine existing civil rights protections.
Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said the senator is "optimistic we can reach a compromise, but we need a little more time and it will in all likelihood have to wait until next year. It is a complicated issue, and since Sept. 11, many people's attention has been focused elsewhere."
Meanwhile, a broad array of national groups is urging Bush to postpone any action on the charitable-choice provision of the initiative, according to a news release issued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a letter sent to the president Oct. 3, 44 leaders of national labor, religious, health, education and civil rights groups urged him not to push for passage of the most divisive aspects of the package at a time when Americans are striving for national unity.
"People of all faiths and those of no religion are uniting together as Americans," said the joint letter. "This is no time to divide us along religious lines."
The groups pointed out that the charitable-choice provision would allow churches and other ministries to receive government grants and contracts and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring staff. In addition, the provision "threatens church-state separation, exposes needy Americans to unwanted proselytism and undercuts the independence of religious organizations," they said.
"Recent media reports have indicated that some advisors in your Administration are hoping to 'revive prospects' for the faith-based initiative in the wake of the attacks, with some aides suggesting a new push for 'charitable choice,' " their letter said. "While we applaud your recent efforts to unite and rally the nation and spur charitable giving to victims and communities, 'charitable choice' is only a step backward toward divisiveness."
Religious charities are now permitted to receive grants from a small number of federal programs. The House-passed legislation would expand the list significantly to cover areas such as housing, domestic violence prevention and hunger relief.
Under the initiative, aid recipients would not be required to attend worship services or religious instruction, and individuals would be offered access to assistance from nonreligious organizations, if they desired. The organizations themselves would be permitted to keep religious names and symbols on building walls.
The bill also includes a series of tax breaks worth $13 billion over the next decade to encourage charitable giving by individuals and corporations.
Groups signing the letter to Bush included Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, Americans for Religious Liberty, Communications Workers of America, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Organization for Women, People For the American Way and The Interfaith Alliance.
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