Faith-based bill may be split in two

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 (JTA) — President Bush’s faith-based initiative may be split into two bills, postponing the contentious issue of direct government funding for religious groups.

Such a move would be welcomed by Jewish groups because it would postpone the more controversial aspects, which have divided the Jewish community.

Along with virtually everything else on the domestic agenda, the faith-based initiative, which has raised so many concerns in the Jewish community, has been eclipsed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

And as the Senate and White House continue to confer, a new approach may separate the legislation into two parts.

That would allow consensus issues to be dealt with now, while leaving more controversial issues such as charitable choice for another day. Charitable choice allows religious institutions to bid for government contracts for providing social services.

The consensus bill likely would include incentives for charitable giving and other ways to assist charities, a welcome move for relief organizations that have suffered in the past month because donors have focused on groups that help terror victims.

Before Sept. 11, there was an assumption that work would progress slowly on the Senate’s alternative to the U.S. House of Representatives bill passed in August.

Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the co-sponsors of the legislation, were taking a methodical approach and were sensitive to the church-state issues surrounding the legislation, say observers.

The administration wanted to push hard for the bill after Sept. 11 but encountered opposition, said Dan Gerstein, Lieberman’s press secretary.

“It was not the right time or environment to paper over differences,” he said. “The differences are real and significant.”

A White House spokesperson would only say that the administration is pleased with the bill’s progress and will continue to work with the Senate to determine points of consensus.

Stanley Carlson-Thies, the associate director for law and policy at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that if the bill is separated into two parts, people could “look at it with fresh eyes.”

Lieberman has said that he supports work on a larger bill at some point in the future.

Ever since Bush started to make good on his campaign promise to increase the role of faith-based organizations in social service programming, Jewish groups have been wary of the anticipated changes.

Some Jewish organizations still fear the Bush administration’s effort to increase partnerships between the federal government and religious institutions runs the risk of eroding the separation of church and state.

The drive to enact a consensus bill sits well with Jewish groups.

“We should pass legislation that reflects the common ground,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

A bill that attempts to tackle all the issues together will never pass, he added.

Other Jewish groups — primarily Orthodox — want faith-based institutions to play a greater role in providing social services and want to lower the wall that separates church and state, as long as minority religions are protected. Faith-based programs are successful, they argue, and it is wrong to continue denying government funding to religious institutions.

However, it is important to pass legislation as soon as possible so that charities can get help, said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Diament, whose organization and other groups that support charitable choice met with White House officials Monday, said a consensus bill does not remove the need for another phase of the faith-based initiative.

Diament conceded that splitting the legislation into two bills could make it harder to pass the charitable choice provisions next year.

Many Jewish groups are not supporting the House faith-based bill, which allowed religious groups to get direct federal funds for a range of social service programs, is no longer the model.

The Anti-Defamation League called the bill “the most seriously flawed and constitutionally objectionable ‘charitable choice’ legislation that has ever reached the House floor.”

Other groups, including Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, maintained that the bill would expose religious institutions to government scrutiny and does not provide safeguards against proselytizing.

Even when signs of compromise did emerge from the House bill, there was no way to tell how the compromises would work. For example, to avoid proselytizing, the bill ordered that religious organizations must make secular social service alternatives available to those who request them — yet it was unclear how such requests would be implemented and monitored.

A scaled-back version of the bill would highlight the ways that religious groups can form partnerships with the government in non-contentious ways.

“We should direct our energies to try to make the recent spirit of giving permanent,” said Julie Segal, former legislative counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “By changing laws regarding private funding and charitable donations, we could serve those in need with the Constitution’s blessing.”

It’s not a new thing for religious-based organizations to receive funding for charitable services. But Jewish federations, for example, take great care to follow guidelines and safeguards so there is no blurring of church-state separation and no religious coercion.

Many Jewish organizations worry that those checks and balances will not be in place as religious institutions assume a larger social service role.

When it was first introduced in 1996, charitable choice allowed religious institutions to bid for government contracts to provide services to welfare recipients.

Over the past several years, charitable choice supporters have attempted incrementally to expand the approach adopted by welfare programs to other social services through various pieces of legislation.

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