House passes charitable choice bill


WASHINGTON, July 19 (JTA) — A charitable choice bill passed by the House of Representatives breaks down the separation between church and state and allows for religious-based hiring discrimination, many Jewish groups warn.

The bill, passed Thursday by a vote of 233-198, would let religious groups get direct federal funding for a range of social service programs.

The Anti-Defamation League called the bill “the most seriously flawed and constitutionally objectionable ‘charitable choice’ legislation that has ever reached the House floor.”

Not all Jewish groups were opposed to the bill. Groups such as the Orthodox Union supported the legislation, which will provide direct government funding to churches and synagogues for their work in areas such as drug treatment and homeless services.

Backers argue that the bill provides critical protection for people seeking services. They also say religious organizations need to retain their essential character, and should be permitted to take religious views into account in hiring.

ADL, Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs claim the bill may open religious institutions to government scrutiny, and does not provide safeguards against proselytizing.

“It is unconscionable, unconstitutional and unacceptable to force those seeking federal services to submit to proselytizing missionaries,” said Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive director.

Opponents of the bill mounted a significant grass-roots effort within the Jewish community and a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.

Despite Thursday’s vote, ADL’s Washington counsel Michael Lieberman believes progress was made during the lobbying.

“The more people learn about charitable choice, the less they like it,” he said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the issue remains of concern in the Jewish community.

Saperstein believes even those lawmakers who voted against the bill recognize the validity of the concerns raised by Jewish groups.

Following the close vote in the House, the Senate is likely to be tough on the bill, especially on the erosion of federal protections against hiring discrimination.

The Senate is expected to take up the issue in the fall.

In a statement, President Bush praised the House for its work and said government should encourage faith-based groups. Bush urged the Senate to support the bill.

“If these good people are acting based on the calling of their faith, we should respect and welcome them, and never stand in their way,” he said.

The House bill, also known as the Community Solutions Act of 2001, contains some attempts at compromise. To avoid proselytizing, for example, the bill calls on organizations to provide secular alternatives to service recipients who request them.

Just how such requests will be implemented and monitored is unclear, however.

The bill provides a big boost to the White House, which has been touting its faith-based initiative since the 2000 election campaign.

The White House did moderate its position somewhat over the past several months, but never fully backed away from the charitable choice initiative.

The legislation’s passage is a particular boon for the administration, since it was held up a number of times. Even at the last minute, it seemed Republicans might not have enough votes to push the measure through, as party moderates raised concerns about discrimination.

The Republican leadership whipped lawmakers into line, however, limiting debate and allowing fewer amendments to the bill.

Supporters of the bill say it allows faith-based organizations to maintain their religious character and levels the playing field for small churches that have lost funding to larger, well-established religious charities.

The Democrats, who were only allowed one substitute amendment rather than open debate on a number of points, pushed a different bill they said would prohibit employment discrimination, prohibit the use of vouchers for services and protect recipients from religious coercion.

That substitute failed, as did the Democrats’ motion to amend the bill to prohibit discrimination.

Democrats said religious groups that accept federal money should not be allowed to discriminate against someone based on religion.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said language in the bill pre-empts state and local anti-discrimination laws.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said her Catholic education taught her to follow the Gospel of Matthew and help the needy, but the bill is problematic. “Today this House will vote to legalize discrimination as we minister to the needs of the poor,” Pelosi said.

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