Charitable Choice Advocates See Promise in Wake of Voucher Decision

The proponents of school choice are not the only ones pleased with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that school vouchers are constitutional.

Advocates of faith-based initiatives are now hoping for the “voucherizing” of charitable choice.

Supporters of direct funding of religious organizations that provide social services might be looking to capitalize on the high court’s decision.

The justices determined that government-funded vouchers to students to attend parochial or private schools do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The justices’ majority opinion made a clear distinction between vouchers and direct government funding of religious institutions.

And while the issues are not the same, charitable choice supporters could opt to pursue a voucher system for their cause, giving individuals vouchers to receive social benefits where they choose, including at religious institutions.

The Supreme Court case was “a big plus” and it legitimized vouchers, according to Marshall Breger, a law professor at Catholic University.

“When there’s true individual choice then vouchers are acceptable,” he said.

But even if an individual is able to choose where to obtain services such as drug counseling, child care or soup kitchens, many Jewish groups worry about an expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions.

Most Jewish groups believe such a partnership would break down the constitutional wall separating church and state, infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination.

In contrast, Orthodox groups want religious groups 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.

That fear of eroding church-state separation is a psychological block that leaves Jews concerned about the urban crisis but not offering any new ideas, according to Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center of American Jewish History at Temple University.

“The Jewish community needs to be more open-minded,” he said.

For Jewish social service agencies, which already receive government funding, the greater fear is what a voucher system would mean for the entire system.

“The effect on the Jewish federation system could be profound,” said Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social services agency.

Under a voucher system, agencies would no longer be able to depend on a fixed, predetermined level of funding. They would have to depend instead on the uncertainty of individuals choosing their programs.

They also worry that agencies would not be reimbursed at the level of what it costs to provide the services, Aviv said.

While large agencies might be able to withstand the change, it would be almost impossible for new programs to start up, she said.

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, said much of the high court’s analysis of school vouchers was premised on the choices of different schools available to parents.

An argument in the charitable choice arena centers around whether there will be secular alternatives available to individuals seeking help, he said.

Opponents claim vouchers lack civil rights protections required under federal grants and direct funding, and would allow organizations not only to discriminate by employing only those of a certain faith, but also to proselytize those individuals receiving government-funded services.

Organizations that receive vouchers or certificates could include religious activities in their service provision and require religious activities for the individuals receiving services, opponents say.

While the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative has focused on direct funding for social service programs, a change in the direction toward vouchers could help boost the issue.

But the administration is keeping mum on its future plans.

“We have to take it one step at a time,” said a White House spokeswoman.

President Bush, whose initial push for faith-based initiatives has weakened, has not announced any policy change regarding vouchers for social services but he has emphasized what he sees as a need to give religious organizations a stronger voice.

In a speech on Monday, the president called the voucher decision “a great victory” and then sounded familiar themes, reiterating how government should treat religious organizations fairly.

“Our government should not fear programs” which exist because “a church or synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one,” he told an audience in Cleveland, the city that established the voucher program that was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.

“We should not discriminate against programs based upon faith in America; we should enable them to access federal money because faith-based programs can change people’s lives, and America will be better off for it.”

Jim Towey, the director of the administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, met with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty of New York last week to discuss equal treatment of faith-based organizations that run social service programs.

Towey told reporters this week that the government should judge programs on whether they’re providing good services, and “not simply look at whether they have a religious name or title.”

Now, the focus could shift to Congress, where the House of Representatives last year passed a bill that would convert any grant or direct funding program to a voucher program.

But the Senate rejected that, and instead is considering a watered-down version that focuses on tax incentives for charitable giving.

The bill also says faith-based groups cannot be made to alter or remove symbols or to alter their names because the symbols or names are religious.

“There’s still a lot of nervousness,” Dan Gerstein said. “A lot of the same questions remain.”

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