Details emerge in charitable choice hearings


WASHINGTON, June 12 (JTA) — The Bush administration may be looking for a compromise on its plans to expand government funding of religious organizations that provide social services.

The White House has moderated its position on charitable choice somewhat over the past several months, but many Jewish groups still fear that an expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions could break down the constitutional wall separating church and state, infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination.

Further evidence of this moderation came during Senate and House of Representatives hearings last week.

Carl Esbeck, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, testified there is growing interest in indirect forms of aid to faith-based organizations.

He also said charitable choice funding is not appropriate for every religious organization, and that those organizations that do want the federal money will have to structure their programs to follow government rules.

The major piece of charitable choice legislation in the House, the Community Solutions Act of 2001, already contains some safeguards against religious coercion, but the Justice Department recommended revisions.

The bill states explicitly that if a beneficiary of a program objects to the religious character of the organization, the government must provide an accessible — and nonreligious — alternative.

“No funds provided through a grant or contract to a religious organization to provide assistance under any program shall be expended for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization,” the bill reads.

The Justice Department suggested that if organizations do offer such religious services, they must be voluntary and offered separately from the programs funded from the government.

The changes are important, and administration efforts to address concerns are welcome, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

However, the effort is not enough to quell Jewish fears, Lieberman said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution on June 7 that abandoning protections for religious groups in pursuit of a level playing field is “a political time bomb for religion in America.”

At that meeting, witnesses enumerated the pros and cons of charitable choice for lawmakers who sometimes seemed confused both on the law’s basic points and on its practicality.

Orthodox Jewish groups maintain that religious organizations are discriminated against under current law and should be given a fair chance.

“Government ought to establish grant criteria that have nothing to do with whether prospective grantees are religious or secular, but simply whether they have the capacity to perform the service,” Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 6.

While apparently willing to make minor modifications, the White House is not backtracking from its initiative, which calls for direct government funding of churches and synagogues for their work in areas such as drug treatment and homeless services.

On a recent visit to Habitat for Humanity, the house-building and home ownership promotion program run by a Christian organization, President Bush reiterated his view that government should not fear working alongside faith-based organizations, but should fund them.

Much of the problem with charitable choice still lies in how it will be put into practice.

Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar, said charitable choice has its merits, but called the difficulties of implementation “serious.”

Some lawmakers questioned the practicality of providing alternative secular programs and wondered how the government would monitor programs.

Further hearings on the matter were scheduled for late this week.

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