In search of alternatives to funding religion


WASHINGTON, March 13 (JTA) – Looking for a new way to say “thanks, but no thanks,” some Jewish leaders are trying to convince the White House to seek alternatives to its faith-based initiative.

President Bush should not focus on direct federal assistance to religious groups that provide social services, Jewish leaders say.

They argue that would risk violating the constitutional separation between church and state.

Instead, they say, he should offer tax credits to individuals who give to charities and indirect aid to religious groups with their programs for the homeless or drug treatment.

Some Jewish groups say they hope that the Bush administration is cautious before it implements its plan to provide federal funds to religious organizations.

The administration is not delaying any part of its initiative, White House officials said Tuesday, contrary to what was reported in Monday’s Washington Post.

The newspaper quoted the deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as saying the proposal “may need to be corrected in some areas.”

But John DiIulio Jr., the office’s director, told a conference of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Tuesday that “we are following our plan.”

When Bush was asked on Monday whether he was backing down on his faith-based initiative, he replied, “Not at all.”

At the same time, the White House, apparently aware of the criticism, appears to be moving ahead slowly. DiIulio told the National Association of Evangelicals last week that proselytizing organizations which provide social services would not be eligible for direct federal funding, but individual recipients could choose to use public vouchers for those programs.

Just the suggestion of using public vouchers shows the administration is realizing the dangers of direct funding and it is beginning to look for other ways for the program to work, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Saperstein and other leaders are pushing other ideas, such as tax credits for charitable giving, as the proper approach to involve more religious groups in the care of the needy. Bush’s plan includes a proposal to allow individuals who do not itemize their tax returns to deduct contributions to charities.

“I would not be surprised to see critics from the right and left join together to support these kinds of initiatives,” Saperstein said.

Rallying around tax credits and other forms of government assistance to religious groups that could stimulate private giving are preferable to the risk of direct federal funding, which poses constitutional problems, Saperstein and others explain.

Most Jewish groups are opposed to expanding financial partnerships between government and religious organizations in the manner suggested by the Bush administration.

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

The Anti-Defamation League has raised concerns about discriminatory employment practices by would-be recipients of funding and the need for safeguards against money going to hate groups.

DiIulio is aware of the “very serious stumbling blocks” in his program, said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

The idea of public vouchers may be “interesting,” but in the end the government is still potentially helping to fund hate groups, according to Foxman. Specifically, the ADL has voiced concern over the possibility that the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, could receive federal funding.

Religious conservatives such as the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell also have problems with the Bush plan. They are concerned that churches would be corrupted by government regulations and that groups they find objectionable would be rewarded.

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the religious conservative backlash “unexpected.”

Rosenthal, who participated in the panel discussion with DiIulio, said she wants local religious groups to receive funding specifically to identify needs in their communities – instead of for running programs that could contain a religious component.

This funding would allow these groups to help the government without infringing upon the Constitution.

“There are other ways to be partners,” she said.

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