WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 (JTA) — The Bush administration is pursuing its charitable choice goals through new regulations that would allow religious groups to receive federal funds for charitable programs. After Congress altered the White House´s faith-based proposal last year, the White House on Monday announced four new regulations that ease access for religious groups and provide grants for homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation centers, and provide housing subsidies. It also proposed new regulations allowing for faith-based groups that receive federal funds to maintain their religious identity, including the display of icons and symbols. The new regulations also would allow for religious charities that receive federal money to discriminate in hiring, allowing them to limit new hires to members of their own faith. “What President Bush has said is he wants to remove barriers that have kept faith-based groups out or discouraged them from applying for funds for services,” said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “This brings us a step closer to where there is a completely level playing field for faith-based groups.” The faith-based initiatives have been opposed by many in the American Jewish community for fear they will erode the constitutional separation of church and state. They also worry that religious groups will mix charitable services and proselytizing. Orthodox groups, however, support the initiative because they believe it treats religious groups fairly and equally. Liberal Jewish organizations say they remain concerned that Bush is doing through federal regulations what he could not do through Congress, after Congress changed the White House´s charitable choice package last year. Congress removed the provision allowing religious discrimination in hiring from that package — and the White House enacted the provision Monday through the new regulations. “It´s not just about proselytizing,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It´s about government support for religious nature and character, programs that evoke a higher power.” The new money available includes $8 billion in grants that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has set aside for faith groups. The Department of Health and Human Services awarded $30.5 million in grants to 81 organizations, which will use funds to provide technical assistance and subgrants to faith-based groups. The proposed rules, which will go through a public comment period, include Department of Education initiatives that will allow faith-based organizations to apply for funding of community technology centers for disadvantaged residents. The Department of Labor has proposed allowing job-training vouchers to be used for religious training services, and the Department of Justice is considering allowing religious groups to receive forfeited assets for social service purposes. Pelavin said there is concern that faith-based groups will now be competing for the same funds as non-religious organizations, limiting access to federal money. But more important, he said, are issues of religious autonomy and prohibitions on religious discrimination in hiring when using federal funds — issues he says should be settled by Congress. “This White House is simply ignoring the important debates that need to take place over discrimination in hiring and the overall concept of directing government funding to houses of worship,” Pelavin said. But Towey denies that the White House is abandoning its congressional initiatives, arguing that it is being pursued simultaneously. Both houses of Congress recently passed the Charitable Giving Act, limiting restrictions on donations to charities, he noted. Towey said the president is “doing what he can, as chief executive, in the executive branch to remove barriers.” Labor Secretary Elaine Chao defended the discrimination in religious hiring. “It removes the barrier that would disallow a federal contractor from hiring someone of their own faith,” she said. Pelavin said he worries that funds could be abused if religious charities proselytize their clientele, and that the introduction of federal monitoring of the affairs of religious organizations could be problematic. But HUD Secretary Mel Martinez said the government is reaching out to grant recipients to teach them how to make sure funds go solely to social services. Towey added that systems are in place to monitor all federal grants, including ones to charitable organizations, and that it has been explained that it is prohibited to use the money for religious services. Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union´s Institute for Public Affairs, said he is confident enough safeguards are in place to prevent proselytizing. “This is designed to allow for equal treatment of religious organizations along non-religious ones,” Diament said.
New rules mean funds for religious groups