Faith-based report says religious groups disadvantaged


WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 (JTA) — Faith-based and community organizations are at a disadvantage when trying to get federal support for their social service programs, according to a White House report.

The charges from the Bush administration are not new, but the report, which details 15 barriers that faith- based groups face when trying to get federal funding, echoes Orthodox Jewish groups’ claim that religious organizations are unfairly treated under current law and should be given better chances to compete.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said that for months groups have been arguing that America’s social welfare system is biased against faith-based charities.

The report “makes the case that this bias exists and that it must be eradicated,” Diament said.

Entitled “Unlevel Playing Field,” the report declares that federal grants programs “too often make it difficult or impossible for faith-based and grassroots groups to gain support.”

Small churches have been shut out of the funding that only goes to larger, well-established religious charities, the report says.

But most Jewish groups are concerned that an expanded partnership between the government and faith- based institutions could infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination.

The Supreme Court said in a 1988 case that direct funding of “pervasively religious” organizations is unconstitutional.

But proponents of charitable choice say the court’s perspective has shifted.

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, said it’s not clear the court has backed away from its previous position.

Until the Supreme Court clarifies the issue, any attempts to go forward are “rash,” Foltin said.

The Anti-Defamation League and other groups have fought against expanding charitable choice, a controversial component of the faith-based initiative that allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts. Groups say it would endanger the constitutional wall between church and state.

Missing from the report was any kind of “clarion call” for new legislation, noted Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington counsel. If the administration decides to proceed with such an expansion by regulatory action rather than through legislation, groups are concerned that changes to the program could be made in a closed and unfair process.

President Bush said the report, which audited the federal departments of Justice, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, highlights the funding gap between the government and the grassroots. But he gave no indication that regulatory action would replace legislative efforts.

“We look forward to addressing these inequities through legislation, administrative action and education,” Bush said.

The federal agencies will be watched, warned Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religious liberty.

If agencies change their regulations — for example, to allow religious groups to conform to different standards of health and safety — then “we’ll just have to sue them,” Lynn said.

The legislative path for charitable choice remains uncertain. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to let religious groups get direct federal funds for a range of social service programs, amid allegations that the new legislation will allow for employment discrimination.

Some Jewish groups fear the bill also may expose religious institutions to government scrutiny, and does not provide safeguards against proselytizing.

The U.S. Senate may take up the issue in the fall, but if it does draft legislation it is likely to be more of a compromise than the House bill.

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