WASHINGTON – A new bipartisan proposal for faith-based charity assistance, announced by Senate sponsors at a White House event Thursday, is a far cry from the ambitious plan set forth by the Bush administration last year.
It is, however, the best chance of getting a bill passed through the Senate.
"I said... that the devil — if I may use that term advisedly — would be in the details. Along the way, Congress, being what it is, turned out to be quite devilish. But in the end here today, I think we've put the good Lord right into the details," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
President Bush, who is trying to get a bill through the Senate despite a successful vote in the House, said the bill will give people hope.
"People who wonder about the American dream will realize the American experience is meant for them. And one way to ensure that is to unleash these fantastic armies of compassion, which exist all across the country," Bush said.
While Lieberman called the new faith-based initiative bill "a real step forward," the proposal does not include the controversial "charitable choice" provisions that would extend moneys to religious organizations that do not currently qualify for government assistance.
"This says that, if you qualify otherwise, you can't be discriminated against in applying for a grant to do social service work if you have a cross on the wall or a mezuza on the door of if you praise God in your mission statement," Lieberman said.
The legislation is expected to include tax breaks for religious-based organizations that already qualify for government assistance under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. It also seeks to alleviate some of the "red tape" hindering some organizations by providing money for grant-writing assistance.
The Senate bill would also allow non-itemizing taxpayers to receive breaks for charitable donations, although it would expire after three years.
Though President Bush proposed a broad package last year to fund religious groups to provide social services, spokeswoman Anne Womack said the president is content with the provisions included in the upcoming Senate bill and has chosen not to press for more at this time.
"I think right now the need to pass the legislation and to implement it is more urgent now more than ever," Womack said, noting that donation levels have fallen at charities all over the country since Sept. 11 and the onset of the recession.
"The Bush administration wanted to claim bipartisanship on this from the beginning, so they're willing to go along with this. They're willing to deal away the more controversial components," said Dennis R. Hoover, a fellow at the religious studies center at Trinity College in Connecticut. "What we have here is a massively stripped-down version."
Some programs run by religious organizations already get money through state assistance and federal funding under welfare reform provisions, but Bush wanted to expand that assistance. Last year, he announced he wanted to make available money for religious groups to pursue "a hopeful new direction for our government" that would "eliminate barriers to all charitable works, wherever they exist."
The House version of the president's bill would have allowed all religious groups with a social program to apply for grants from the federal government. It would also have allowed government funding for religious groups that are exempt from civil rights laws in the name of their religious beliefs. For instance, organizations that fundamentally oppose homosexuality would still receive government money.
That didn't sit well with some members of the Congress and among the religious groups themselves, who called Bush's initiative discriminatory and unconstitutional. Church-and-state separationists also feared the government would be funding conversions.
Conversely, some conservative religious groups, including American Baptists and white Evangelicals, said they didn't want government funding for fear it would open up their missions to fringe groups and meddlesome federal mandates.
Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Lieberman's office, said the Senate bill takes into account those concerns and better reflects the original goal of the legislation — to work with charities to make social services more accessible the needy.
"The House bill sanctioned discrimination and crossed the separation [of church and state] line. It would have never passed the Senate," he said. By taking the controversial elements out, "this bill puts the community back into the faith-based initiative."
Kristin Hansen, a spokesperson for the Family Research Council, said her organization would support the new Santorum-Lieberman bill as long as it did not force churches to compromise their practices.
"That's our top priority and we will support a bill that allows faith-based organizations to be just that — faith-based," she said. "We will support a bill that gives us the right to hire those who share our beliefs."
Womack said that for those who are worried Bush is abandoning his initiative, they shouldn't. The recent appointment of Jim Towey, a longtime advocate for senior citizens who had personally worked with Mother Theresa, to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is a clear signal that the administration's work in this area is not over.
"We built upon where the consensus lies and want to see something passed as quickly as possible," she said.