WASHINGTON (Feb. 3)
A new director for the White House faith-based office could mean a new course for the administration’s struggling initiative.
On Feb. 1, President Bush named Jim Towey, who has worked with Mother Teresa and for both political parties, as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Bush said there was a “tremendous opportunity” to take the spirit of helping others that flourished following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and apply it to problems like poverty, substance abuse, illiteracy and homelessness through the work of faith-based institutions.
“I believe with the help of faith we can solve the problems,” Bush said.
Jewish leaders were pleased with the president’s choice to head up the still-controversial initiative.
Towey understands the complex moral and legal issues and brings a real understanding of Capitol Hill, bipartisan cooperation and social service delivery, says Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
But it remains to be seen just how the president’s plan will proceed, especially through Congress. Bush’s faith- based plan has stalled in Congress over issues such as direct funding for religious organizations’ social services programs and whether charities can discriminate based on religion in their hiring practices.
Towey will work to eliminate barriers that discriminate against community and faith-based organizations, Bush said.
“Government must expedite and stand on the side of faith-based programs. We should not discriminate at the federal level against people who are trying to help us solve the nation’s problems,” he said.
It seems the initiative now will be connected and coordinated with the president’s focus on volunteerism and community service. But Jewish groups say it is too early to tell if any fundamental change will take place in the controversial points of the faith-based plan.
The White House said there will be a new advisory council on faith-based and community initiatives, in which Towey will participate along with five Cabinet secretaries and Stephen Goldsmith, the chairman for the Corporation of National and Community Service.
The president clearly is still interested in regulatory and legislative change on the issue, said Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social services agency.
But the choice of Towey brings with it an inclusive message, she said, and marks an effort to reach out to both sides.
“The White House has learned a lot in the past year,” Aviv said. “It’s mindful of the changes, and it wants to get the job done.”
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said Bush is clear in his commitment to passing the initiative.
One of the main sticking points for the administration’s plan has been charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government contracts to provide social services.
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 runs the risk of eroding the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
The plan that may ultimately emerge from Congress could focus more on tax credits and other forms of government assistance to religious groups that could stimulate private giving and which are preferable to the risk of direct federal funding, these groups say.
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.
John DiIulio, Jr., who served as the faith-based office’s first director, tried to strike a balance between religious and civil liberties’ concerns, but some faulted him for complicating negotiations between the White House and Congress. DiIulio left his position after six months, citing health reasons, and the director’s job has been open for months.
Towey founded an advocacy group called Aging With Dignity in 1996 after working at Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying. He was legal counsel for 12 years to Mother Teresa, and he lived for one year as a full-time volunteer in her home for people with AIDS in Washington.
Towey also worked in public service, leading Florida’s health and social services agency, the largest in the United States, and serving in the cabinet of Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. Earlier, he worked in Washington as legislative director and legal counsel for Sen. Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican.