WASHINGTON, June 19 (JTA) — With solutions to the problems surrounding President Bush’s faith- based initiative still elusive, a new group is attempting to find some common ground on the controversial issue.
The study group includes critics such as representatives of liberal Jewish groups and advocates of church- state separation, as well as the director of a substance abuse center who recently got into hot water for his statements regarding Jews and Jesus. It met Tuesday for the first time to find areas of agreement in the White House’s plan.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to probe the issue with a House committee scheduled to work on a bill this week, following recent hearings in the House and Senate.
Despite all the activity, there are no concrete answers yet to the problems that many Jewish groups — and others — still have with charitable choice, the initiative’s most controversial component, which allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts.
Many Jewish groups still fear that an expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions could infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination.
Orthodox Jewish groups, though, maintain that religious organizations are discriminated against under current law, and should be given a fair chance to compete.
It is difficult to foresee how the study group will be able to bridge certain gaps.
For example, some members feel direct funding to religious groups is unacceptable, while others say that without direct funding a greater role for churches and synagogues cannot succeed.
The group, formed by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and the conflict resolution organization Search for Common Ground, is headed by Harris Wofford, a former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania.
The American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are participating.
Wofford and Santorum suggested the group may agree that the government can provide at least two things: technical assistance to small faith-based providers and tax changes to allow non-itemizers to deduct their charitable contributions.
The tax change, an idea supported by many groups, was not included in the administration’s tax bill, but Santorum and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) proposed legislation calling for that change.
In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, Wofford and Santorum wrote that “conditions are ripe for us to unite in this effort.”
They also wrote: “Let’s not allow honest differences over church-state separation to escalate into another round in America’s culture wars.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, said the group faces major challenges but has the potential to make a “very constructive” difference.
The White House has moderated its position on charitable choice somewhat over the past several months but is not backing away from the overall initiative.
Just how the plan will be implemented is still the ultimate question without an answer.
“There’s so much discussion, but things remain remarkably unclear,” said Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.
Momentum has slowed because of attacks from both sides of the political spectrum, Friedman said.
Some evangelical Christians oppose charitable choice because they fear it would represent unwelcome governmental intrusion into their social service programs.
Friedman, who worked with a number of religious and civic groups to study charitable choice and produce a report on the issue, “In Good Faith,” said the new group’s creation could presage further consensus between liberals and conservatives on the issue.
One of the members of the working group is John Castellani, the director of Teen Challenge, a substance abuse treatment program, who came under attack after testifying before Congress that Jews at his center were “completed” — that is, had accepted Jesus — as part of their treatment.
After Castellani’s statement, Saperstein wrote a letter to Bush warning him of the expansion of charitable choice laws resulting in the funding and strengthening of organizations that make proselytizing a core component of their work
But Saperstein is welcoming Castellani’s participation in the working group, saying Castellani could learn to understand the deep sensitivities of the Jewish community, and that better relationships could be formed out of such a dialogue.