Bush’s faith chief takes his case to the Jews


WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (JTA) – The director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives took his case directly to the Jewish community this week – and was met with polite disapproval.

John DiIulio, Jr. came to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs conference here Monday well aware that many in the audience opposed the idea of giving government funds to religious organizations for social services and acknowledged the difficulties he faces in trying to implement his program.

But DiIulio, trying to assuage Jewish concerns, highlighted some programs run by community and religious groups, such as housing rehabilitation and mentoring at-risk children, noting that most beneficiaries were not members of the congregation and were not required to express any religious faith before receiving the services.

“I’m not suggesting to you that our worst fears may not be justified,” he said. But the “most systematic research, if anything, moderates these kinds of concerns.”

DiIulio had his work cut out for him in facing the Jewish community because most Jewish groups have come out against expanding financial partnerships between government and religious organizations.

They say it chips away at the constitutional separation between church and state, allows for employment discrimination based on religion and infringe on religious liberties.

DiIulio, who promised to be “on the emes” – to tell the truth – to the audience, said he did not yet have any details about how much government money would go into the program or how the organizations would be monitored.

As a result, many of the questions raised by participants were left unanswered.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised DiIulio but lambasted his plan, saying it would corrupt religion and force religious groups to compete against each other.

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, called the new federal office’s plan a “fundamentally misguided mission” and noted there has yet to be a congressional hearing on the issue of charitable choice.

In contrast, Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, lauded the concept of an expanded role for religious groups and said the “so-called employment discrimination claim” is just a political tactic.

The late-night session’s topic resonated with conference attendees – more than a dozen stood at microphones to ask questions and others waited to speak directly to DiIulio after the program until nearly midnight.

Meanwhile, a group of religious and civic organizations released a report Tuesday emphasizing areas of agreement on the government’s partnership with religious organizations but disagreeing on many other aspects of charitable choice.

The report, “In Good Faith: A Dialogue on Funding Faith-Based Social Services,” does not reflect changes in policy for any of the groups that signed on to it.

Some of the groups that participated in the report back the administration’s proposals, while others – such as the American Jewish Committee, the only Jewish group to sign on – do not.

The document is an attempt to educate religious organizations on the benefits and drawbacks of the administration’s faith-based initiatives, said Jeffrey Sinensky, legal counsel and director of domestic policy for the AJCommittee.

The Anti-Defamation League called the report “premature” and said it does not adequately address concerns about discriminatory employment practices by would-be recipients of funding or endorse safeguards against money going to hate groups.

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