Focus on charitable choice as Congress resumes


WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (JTA) — A year after Sen. Joseph Lieberman made news by being the first Jew to be nominated to a major party’s presidential ticket, attention again is focused on the Democratic senator from Connecticut — but for a different reason.

Lieberman is expected to lead the legislative effort in the Senate for an initiative that would allow federal money to go to religious groups that provide social services.

It remains to be seen whether Lieberman will base his proposal for the faith-based initiative on the House bill — which passed in July but met with much opposition from most Jewish groups — or will take a new tack.

“All eyes are on Joe Lieberman and what his proposal will be,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate has indicated that it is unlikely that faith-based legislation will be a priority this fall, or will make it onto the list of “must-pass” legislation. Yet the faith-based initiative is the item likely to grab headlines, and the most attention from Jewish groups, as Congress returns this week from its August recess.

In addition to the faith-based issue, Jewish groups are watching the effects of the recent tax cut and a slowed economy, especially whether lawmakers looking to effect budget cuts will trim programs that Jewish groups consider important.

The Bush administration likely will push to appropriate funds for the faith-based initiative — but as part of its attempt to keep spending levels moderate, it probably will try to spread current levels of faith-based funding around, rather than increasing the total pot of money for the initiative.

The part of the faith-based initiative known as charitable choice will continue to be scrutinized by Jewish groups.

First passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, charitable choice allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts.

Many Jewish leaders 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.

Orthodox groups, however, agree with the administration’s assessment, bolstered by a recent White House report, that faith-based groups have been excluded from federal funding and that efforts must be made to level the playing field.

The prospect of the Bush’s administration charitable choice provisions being enacted suffered recently with the resignation of John DiIulio Jr., the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who was respected in the Jewish community.

No replacement has been named, though insiders believe John Bridgeland, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, is the front-runner.

The ADL agrees that recruitment of faith-based groups ought to be expanded but worries that proper safeguards against proselytizing will not be maintained if federal funding goes directly to religious groups.

ADL and other Jewish groups also will be tracking efforts to advance the initiative through the regulatory process — rather than legislation — which is seen as the administration’s preferred way to proceed. That would allow the Bush administration to put the initiative into practice without public scrutiny or lawmaker approval.

As always, federal government spending for social service programs is a priority for many Jewish groups.

The United Jewish Communities, the central fund-raising and social services agency for the Jewish community, will be looking to maintain current funding levels for programs it supports.

The UJC is hopeful that funding for Medicare and Medicaid programs, social service block grants, aid for refugees and long-term care programs will stay the same. However, money simply is not available for new initiatives, such as UJC’s push for funds to create retirement communities in places with aging populations.

“This is a very tough period,” said Diana Aviv, UJC’s vice president of public policy. “I’d say forget about it.”

The tax cut and smaller budget will impact every appropriations bill, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

An evergreen issue that may see some new life is hate crimes. Prospects for passing hate crimes legislation might be better than in years past since a Senate committee passed a free-standing hate crimes bill — rather than an amendment — and the issue has broad bipartisan support in the full Senate.

There also is support for the bill in the House of Representatives, albeit less than in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill in July that would authorize federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability, expanding current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity.

Many Jewish groups support national hate crimes legislation. In recent years hate crimes targeted at Jews caught the national spotlight, such as the April 2000 Pittsburgh shooting that killed a Jewish woman, a white supremacist’s shooting rampage in July 2000 in Illinois and the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.

As for the House, the lower body went on record in support of hate crimes legislation last September, but the hate crimes provisions added to the defense spending bill ultimately were taken out of the final version.

Groups also will watch federal funding for education.

The American Jewish Committee is fighting against any voucher-like programs and a provision in the House bill that will deny federal funding to a school if the school does not allow “constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.”

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the AJCommittee, says the provision would encourage school administrators to become more lax in enforcing church-state separation and jeopardize the right of public school students not to be proselytized.

The Orthodox Union, meanwhile, wants to make sure that parochial school teachers are allowed to participate in programs for teacher development.

On a different issue, both AJCommittee and the Orthodox Union are hoping that the Workplace Religious Freedom Act will get some notice this fall. The bill, which would strengthen provisions for religious accommodation, may get more attention since it is the only major piece of religious liberty legislation that would be considered at this time.

While domestic concerns once again will be at the fore, Jewish groups say that issues pertaining to Israel will not be neglected.

As always, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is pushing for full funding for assistance to Israel. This session, however, it also is supporting legislation that calls on the president to impose sanctions on the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority if the groups do not end or prevent terrorism and stop anti-Israel incitement.

Such language is included in the House foreign aid bill and is expected to be included as an amendment to the Senate bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

That would require the president to select one of three sanctions — closing the Palestinian information office in the United States, designating the PLO and its constituent groups as foreign terrorist organizations or restricting assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip — should he determine that the PLO and Palestinian Authority are not upholding their peace commitments.

There also are efforts to include the language in a free-standing bill, so that the measures would become law and not expire after one year.

“There’s a feeling on the Hill that it’s time to do more and to crack down on terrorism,” AIPAC spokesperson Rebecca Needler said.

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