WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (JTA) — A U.S. court ruling striking down government funding for a religion-based social service program is unlikely to influence charitable choice discussions in Congress, observers say. A federal judge ruled Jan. 8 that "unrestricted, direct funding" of Faith Works, a Christian-based program in Wisconsin that helps fathers with drug and alcohol treatment and job training violates the church-state separation enshrined in the First Amendment. The decision is the first federal court decision striking down aid to religious groups under the charitable choice provisions included in the 1996 federal welfare reform law. But it is the political mood on Capitol Hill, not the slow pace of court rulings, that keeps charitable choice a hot topic among lawmakers. "The drive for charitable choice is overwhelmingly political," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The disconnect between court decisions and public policy is not unique to charitable choice. Still, many activists had cautioned the Bush administration not to push through its plan to funnel aid to religious groups before charitable choice had worked its way through the courts. The White House suffered a major setback to its faith-based initiative last year when opposition emerged over charitable choice, and it is unclear whether the Bush administration will pursue the hotly contested issue. In fact, some speculate that the administration will have to suffice with pushing forward legislation on tax credits to spur charitable. Nevertheless, the White House is leaving the door open for reviving its plan, while playing down the effect the recent court case will have on its efforts. "This case has no impact on the faith-based and community initiative moving through Congress," said Mercy Viana, a White House spokesperson. The U.S. House of Representatives passed charitable choice in its faith-based legislation last summer, but the Senate has yet to finalize its version of the bill. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have been working on the bill, but it´s unclear whether the final draft will be a compromise that leaves out the charitable choice language or a full-blown alternative to the House bill that finesses funding for religious organizations. Lieberman´s press secretary, Dan Gerstein, said he did not think last week´s ruling would have much effect on Congress, and noted that Congress has approved charitable choice several times. Experts in the field point out that one lower court decision does not usually have a tremendous impact on public policy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the suit against Faith Works, did not argue that this case had implications for the constitutionality of the charitable choice statute, so the court did not address the issue. A court case that is likely to affect the discussion over charitable choice is one originating in Cleveland dealing with school vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up a vouchers case this term, and the decision is expected to be a turning point in the charitable choice debate. If vouchers are upheld, some experts believe, it will be hard to argue that charitable choice is unconstitutional. If the high court decides school vouchers are permissible because the money goes from the government to the parent rather than to the school, advocates might argue that a charitable choice voucher would send government money to the social services client, not the religious organization providing the service. The recent court decision does "make the case you have to very carefully structure legislation" on charitable choice, according to Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union´s Institute for Public Affairs. But it´s too early for groups who oppose charitable choice to declare victory, he warned. Diament believes legislation will address concerns raised by the judge and by charitable choice opponents, including safeguards to prevent programs from proselytizing and the need to offer alternative secular programs. The ruling still was an important victory and a "shot across the bow," according to Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress´ legal department. But there are years of litigation ahead, and the ruling is a warning that the issue is not going to be easy for either side, Stern said. During his presidential campaign, President Bush visited Faith Works to promote his idea of allowing religious groups to receive direct government aid for their social service programs. Religion is integral to the Faith Works program. In its employee handbook, the program says, "The addict learns that he had a deep ‘soul sickness,´ and it is only by connecting to God through profession, confession, prayer and involvement in a worshipping community that he has any hope of sustaining a life in recovery." Faith Works considers commitment to Christian beliefs and values when hiring counseling staff, but the program says it does not discriminate by hiring on the basis of religion. Faith Works serves people from all religious backgrounds. Faith Works received money under Wisconsin´s Department of Workforce Development grant from the governor´s discretionary fund.
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