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Bush Supports New Faith-based Bill; Jewish Groups Give It Mixed Grade

February 11, 2002
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Some call it a mixed bag, others an improvement and still others say it doesn’t go far enough.

That makes the latest attempt at faith-based legislation, introduced in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 7, just what people were expecting — a compromise.

President Bush threw his support behind the new bill the same day, after recognizing that a House of Representatives proposal containing controversial points about government funding for religious organizations that provide social services was not going to make it through the Senate.

“Government should not discriminate against faith-based programs, but it should encourage them to flourish,” Bush said in the Oval Office as he met with lawmakers.

Many Jewish groups are pleased with parts of the Senate bill that address incentives for charitable giving, but many are still concerned about other parts and have not pledged support for the bill.

The Senate bill, which has been in drafting stages for months, calls for tax incentives for charitable donations and an increase in social service funding. But it drops some of the most controversial issues involving funding for religious organizations.

There are a number of tax incentives in the bill designed to spur charitable giving. For example, people who do not itemize their tax returns will be able to deduct for their charitable donations — a $400 deduction for singles and $800 for couples — and IRA holders can make charitable donations from their accounts.

The incentives will expire after two years because of severe budgetary constraints from the war on terror, but supporters say they wanted to respond to immediate charity needs.

In addition, the bill calls for substantial increases to the Social Services Block Grant, for which the administration requested $1.7 billion in its budget. The bill calls for an additional $275 million in 2003 and a boost to $2.8 billion in 2004.

Senators heralded the bill, also called the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, and its treatment of religious organizations.

The bill says religious groups will not be discriminated against and may retain their religious names and icons.

Most Jewish groups have been wary of the increased role of faith-based organizations in social service programming. They fear that the Bush administration’s effort to increase partnerships between the federal government and religious institutions runs the risk of eroding the constitutional separation of church and state.

The Anti-Defamation League called the latest bill an improvement over previous drafts, but said it was concerned about provisions that could permit religious indoctrination and employment discrimination.

ADL and other groups say they will closely monitor regulatory actions that could bring about direct funding for faith-based groups that discriminate in their hiring practices.

For now, the bill could defuse calls for a more radical approach to federal aid to religious groups — but administration officials stress that the White House still supports charitable choice.

“This debate will go on for a long time,” Jim Towey, the new head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told JTA.

Other Jewish groups — primarily Orthodox — want faith-based institutions to play a greater role in providing social services and want to lower the wall that separates church and state, as long as minority religions are protected.

The Orthodox Union said the consensus package would help amend inequities that have affected faith-based groups.

Lieberman recalled that when he stood alongside Bush at the announcement of the administration’s faith-based initiative last year, he said the devil would be in the details.

“The details along the way, Congress being what it is, turned out to be quite devilish,” he said. “But in the end here today, I think we’ve put the good Lord right into the details.”

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