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Move to Solidify Faith-based Office Rekindles Debate in the Jewish World

June 30, 2005
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For four years, American Jewish groups debated President Bush’s proposals to mix faith with social services. Now the fight is over whether the administration’s programs should be made permanent.

Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) introduced legislation earlier this year to make the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives permanent and codify its activities into law. The move has rekindled a long-smoldering debate in the Jewish community.

Many view “charitable choice” provisions — which require government agencies to evaluate religious institutions on an equal footing with secular counterparts when it comes to issuing grants — as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. They say faith groups potentially could discriminate in hiring or could proselytize with federal money.

But others, especially in the Orthodox community, welcome the chance to receive federal funding on a level playing field with other social-service providers.

The White House office was established by executive order as one of Bush’s first official acts in 2001. It since has coordinated the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to faith-based groups through initiatives established within government agencies.

The White House lists the preservation of the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and the allocation of a $1.7 million grant to the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center in Perth Amboy, N.J., among the office’s accomplishments.

Bush has been pushing for the program to become law. In his 2004 State of the Union address, Bush praised the role of religious charities in doing “some of the most vital work in our country — mentoring children, feeding the hungry, taking the hand of the lonely.”

The president said the federal government has withheld grants and contracts from such groups in the past “just because they have a cross or a Star of David or a crescent on the wall,” and argues that a law formalizing his work would end discrimination against people of faith.

But Congress has yet to codify any faith-based program, and advocates fear the initiative could be wiped out if a future president chooses not to follow the Bush administration’s lead. An executive order can be repealed at any time.

The Tools for Community Initiatives Act would create a permanent faith-based office in the White House and task a director with developing programs to expand the incorporation of faith initiatives through legislation, executive action and private partnerships.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said direct government funding would help combat years of alleged discrimination against religious people and institutions.

For example, Seattle’s Orthodox Hebrew Academy was denied federal funds after its facilities were severely damaged by a 2000 earthquake. Diament said the faith-based initiative’s equal-treatment philosophy helped reverse the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s policy, and won the school rebuilding money.

“The earthquake did not discriminate among which institutions to strike, yet FEMA was discriminating in its relief efforts,” Diament told a congressional panel last year.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, testified against the legislation earlier this month, calling it “bad for religion, bad public policy, unconstitutional and socially divisive.”

While he acknowledged that the office has done some good work, Saperstein said a permanent office would undermine the separation between church and state, weaken good social service programs and imperil the special position of religious institutions in the public arena.

“Never has the Supreme Court upheld direct funding of religious institutions,” Saperstein told JTA. He expressed concern that the legislation would lend credence to a legal vision that treats religion the same as anything else.

“The damage may not be immediate,” he warned, “but what this would lead to is an erosion of the special status of religion.”

In the hearing, Saperstein said a leader of the evangelical Christian group Teen Challenge admitted to him that his program had the effect of converting — or, in his words, “completing” — Jewish children. He worried that the conversion process could be government-funded in the future.

“That any taxpayer should fund her own discrimination or proselytizing betrays every principle of our democracy,” Saperstein said.

But Diament said the question is whether religious groups are allowed to compete with non-religious organizations for government funding. Diament denied that any real difference exists between religious groups and religiously affiliated organizations such as the Jewish federation system, which uses federal dollars for social-service programming.

One compromise could be the imposition of regulations against proselytizing. Diament said such regulations would not excessively interfere with religious groups’ autonomy.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel of the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said organizations could decide whether regulations against proselytizing would cause them to compromise their beliefs or somehow impede their activities.

If they felt compromised, they could opt out, “but if they can live with it, they should be able to do so,” he said.

Suggesting that organizations can’t determine on their own whether or not they can control proselytizing “is being paternalistic and condescending,” he said.

Cohen said his organization is against programs that would lead to proselytizing, and their support of the bill is contingent on proper safeguards against conversion efforts. He said he believes such safeguards are workable.

But officials in other Jewish groups have their doubts. They say codifying the office may be unobjectionable, but the legislation dances around controversial issues.

“The bill is a backdoor way of ratifying the president’s charitable choice program without discussing it as a policy,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. “Inevitably, you’ll have to have another battle about the policy.”

The Anti-Defamation League also has opposed the bill, in part because it lacks safeguards against discrimination in hiring. Religious groups are exempt from some hiring regulations, and there is fear that groups could choose only staff of their faith with government money.

The ADL also expressed concern that faith-based aid recipients are allowed to use religious art and symbols on their walls, and it’s unclear whether social-service beneficiaries could be denied benefits if they decline to participate in a group’s religious practices.

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