Charitable choice on deathbed for now

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (JTA) — President Bush´s faith-based initiative may be alive and well, but direct government funding for religious groups seems to be dying a slow death. The latest incarnation of the faith-based bill appears largely to skirt that most contentious issue — known as charitable choice — and focus on tax incentives for charitable giving. The legislation likely will be folded into a larger spending bill at the end of the year. Jewish groups consider the latest version of the bill to be a good compromise. They are pleased with anticipated changes that include an IRA charitable rollover and a nonitemizer tax deduction — which could boost the amount of money Americans will give to charity — as well as an additional $250 million in federal funding for social services. But there still are some concerns. The language is not yet final in the Senate version of the legislation, which is expected to be released next week. But some groups argue that sections of the draft version leave the door open for religious groups that receive public funds — albeit not directly— to proselytize and discriminate. Most Jewish groups have been wary of the increased role of faith-based organizations in social service programming, fearing the Bush administration´s effort to increase partnerships between the federal government and religious institutions could erode the separation of church and state. Other Jewish groups — primarily Orthodox ones — 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. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have been meeting with staffers of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is working on the legislation with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). They hope to shape the final bill to include language countering discrimination in hiring and protecting civil rights and religious freedom. In the bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in August, religious groups would be permitted to receive direct federal funds for a range of social service programs. Most Jewish groups objected to the House bill, and would not support a compromise effort with the Lieberman-Santorum bill. Since the Lieberman-Santorum bill would include most of the consensus issues, it will be harder for charitable choice provisions to pass on their own next year. Just how enthusiastically Jewish groups will support the bill is unclear. Most of these groups support the tax incentives, but are unsure whether they will support the Lieberman-Santorum bill because of concerns about religious proselytizing and discrimination. They worry that federal money could be given to programs that would require employees to accept Jesus, for example. It´s also not clear if this bill spells the end of charitable choice or if it might be used as a stepping stone for future charitable choice provisions. For his part, Lieberman says he will continue to work next year on a bill to expand charitable choice. 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, first adopted by welfare programs, to other social services through various pieces of legislation.

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