WASHINGTON, May 25 (JTA) — Vice President Al Gore walked into the minefield of church-state separation this week when he proposed expanding a controversial “charitable choice” program that gives federal money to religious organizations. Gore’s plan, announced in a campaign speech Monday in Atlanta, drew immediate fire from some of his strongest supporters in the Jewish community. Charitable choice programs allow faith-based counseling groups to participate in welfare programs without altering their religious character. While Gore said he believes in “the separation of church and state,” he adopted the language of many in the religious right, adding, “freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion.” Under the “New Partnership” program Gore proposed, religious institutions could receive federal funds for drug treatment programs, services for the homeless and initiatives to combat youth violence “without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness,” Gore told an enthusiastic audience in a 30-minute speech at the Atlanta Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. “As long as there is always a secular alternative for anyone who wants one, and as long as no one is required to participate in religious observances as a condition for receiving services, faith-based organizations can provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care,” Gore said. “I believe we should extend this carefully tailored approach to other vital services where faith-based organizations can play a role,” he said. Jewish organizations, which traditionally advocate strict church-state separation, lashed out at Gore’s proposal. The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said Gore’s proposal is “so puzzling and so troubling.” It is “an alarming alteration to the careful balance between church and state,” said Mark Pelavin, the group’s associate director. “Religion has flourished in America not despite the respectful distance between government and religion, but because of it.” But not everyone in the Jewish community is opposed to Gore’s initiative. “There exists an even greater potential for building a better society if faith based institutions are invited into this enterprise because, as you said, ‘Faith works,’ ” Orthodox Union President Dr. Mandell Ganchrow and the director of the institute for public affairs, Nathan Diament, said in a letter to Gore. “Some will tell you that such initiatives are unconstitutional and that they risk violating America’s traditional separation between religion and state. These critics are wrong,” said the O.U. leaders, who run a program for the developmentally disabled that could benefit from Gore’s proposal. Gore’s plan has put some supporters in the Jewish community in an awkward position. The National Jewish Democratic Council, which has opposed charitable choice programs in the past, said Gore’s promises that the program will pass constitutional muster “deserve to be taken at face value,” said Stephen Silberfarb, the group’s deputy executive director. The group urged critics to “hold fire” and contacted the White House to seek more information on the program.
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