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Groups mobilize against Bush faith-based plan

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (JTA) — Even before details are released of President Bush’s proposal to grant federal funds to religious groups that provide social services, some Jewish groups and other religious organizations are mobilizing against it.

Bush’s proposal, outlined last week, has raised fears in the Jewish community that the expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions would break down the constitutional separation between church and state, allow for employment discrimination based on religion and infringe on religious liberties.

Not waiting to see what will happen to Bush’s plan in Congress, Jewish groups are meeting and strategizing, building coalitions and doing whatever else they can to prepare for what could be a dramatic change in social welfare policy.

Several groups — including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America — have formed a coalition with non-Jewish religious and civil liberties groups to address policy concerns.

Many groups have been working together on this issue of “charitable choice” since it was first introduced in 1996, when it allowed religious institutions to bid for government contracts to provide services to welfare recipients. Bush’s plan would expand charitable choice to fund religious institutions directly.

Even before specifics of the plan have been released, some organizations have undertaken a broad push to educate their members, the Jewish community at large and congressional representatives on the issue.

The Anti-Defamation League is organizing meetings with state and local legislators and congressional representatives, while the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is working with Capitol Hill offices and also fielding calls from rabbis who want to organize against the proposed changes.

Some details of the plan are expected later this month, after the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives opens on Feb. 20.

The head of the new office, John DiIulio Jr., is scheduled to speak at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs at the end of February.

Some members of JCPA, an umbrella organization, are more sympathetic to the issue, but DiIulio still is likely to face a tough audience.

In a recent Op-Ed, JCPA Executive Director Hannah Rosenthal wrote, “We will work to convince President Bush that even as his priorities are right, his solutions are misguided.”

Orthodox Jewish groups, on the other hand, generally favor an expanded role for religious institutions, provided that minority religions are protected. They do not raise arguments about religious discrimination, viewing the hiring choices of synagogues and churches as a private matter.

Even as they mobilize against the Bush plan, some Jewish groups admit that parts of the administration’s proposal intrigue them.

Indeed, groups say they do not object to closer ties between the federal government and religious institutions, but rather to the expansion of the role of churches and synagogues without proper safeguards against what they see as religious coercion and discrimination.

Another concern is that, if no additional money is slated for social services, the proposal will result in more groups will be fighting for the same limited government funding.

Just after Bush announced his plan in late January, a number of Jewish and non-Jewish clergy met to voice their opposition, saying the proposal would force different faiths to compete for government funds and could excessively entangle church and state.

Legislators are awaiting the administration’s blueprint and listening to the concerns of the Jewish community, but some on Capitol Hill already are well-versed on charitable choice and are raising questions about Bush’s proposal.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee, has called on the committee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), to hold immediate hearings on the matter.

Another congressman looking to take the lead on the issue is Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who has fought against charitable choice measures in the past. Scott, who sees employment discrimination as “the heart and soul of charitable choice,” is planning meetings with other members and staff to get people up to speed on the issue, a staffer said.

One potential Bush ally is Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who often talked about the role of faith in the public sector during his vice presidential bid last summer.

Lieberman is concerned about the intermingling of church and state and about possible discrimination against certain faiths, and so far he has not endorsed Bush’s plan. But he does support its broader principles, Lieberman press secretary Dan Gerstein said.

Lieberman is waiting for the “meat on the policy bones,” but he definitely is interested in playing a role and helping to build bipartisan support, Gerstein said.

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