Redlining faith

National | Congress offers to help religious charities, but thoroughly biblical ones still need not apply

Issue: "TNIV makes its debut," Feb. 23, 2002

in Washington-With smiles all around in the Oval Office on Feb. 7, President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators posed before the press and unveiled a new proposal to help faith-based charities. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) joked about the devil in the details of last year's effort: "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." But one detail remains devilish: the redlining of what critics call "pervasively sectarian" groups. The Senate bill-called the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act-is largely a temporary tax cut. It allows taxpayers who don't itemize on their returns a deduction of $400 for charitable donations ($800 for couples). So far, so good. But another of the proposal's provisions raises all of the old detail demons. That provision is "narrowly tailored," according to a statement from Sen. Lieberman's office, to provide "equal treatment" in the doling out of government grants to charities that have religious names, religious symbols on the walls, or religious criteria in their charters or governing boards. Conspicuously absent is a promise of equal treatment to charities that hire on the basis of belief and those that seek to change the lives of the poor or addicted through inspiring religious commitment. "Government seems comfortable with funding faith-based groups if their faith is simply reflected in works, in community outreach," Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) told WORLD. "Getting aid to groups that proselytize like Teen Challenge, who find faith impossible to separate from their program, in today's environment, that's just not going to work." As the legislative session elapsed in December, Rep. Souder introduced a bill in the House mirroring the Senate bill. He argues that the Senate bill represents the strongest language that can pass both houses and make its way to the president's desk. Other House members, such as Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), oppose the Senate bill because it doesn't do enough. Still, Senate boosters think that the atmosphere for their bill is much stronger since Sept. 11, and that the financial downturn suffered by many charities will spur congressional interest in boosting private philanthropy with tax incentives. They compare the bill to quickly passed legislation fighting terrorism and aiding airlines. "It should pass almost by acclamation," said Sen. Lieberman's co-sponsor, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) promised the president he would have a debate on faith-based programs this year, and Sen. Daschle has given Sen. Lieberman notice that if he can sell his bill to the Democratic caucus, he'll move it. Some Democrats expect a Senate vote could come by early summer. TeamBush is also touting another avenue for supporting faith-based action: the forthcoming USA Freedom Corps proposal, first announced in the State of the Union address. It includes a big boost for Americorps, a program that emerged from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Americorps officials have boasted that their programs are already providing volunteers to many faith-based charities without any of the church-state squabbles that have bogged down Congress. Les Lenkowsky, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of Americorps, enthusiastically told WORLD about a visit to the West Seneca Youth Bureau in Buffalo, N.Y., where officials say 41 of the 43 food pantries their Americorps volunteers serve in western New York are faith-based. "We're able to avoid some of these constitutional entanglements that are real and serious, but also avoidable if you understand what's permitted and what's not permitted in our relationships between church and state," he said. But what's clearly not an Americorps practice now is allowing volunteers to go to charities that explicitly teach biblical answers to people's problems. Currently, the federal government and state governors assign volunteers to charities. Last summer, Sen. Santorum introduced a bill that would give volunteers more choice in the charity they would serve, but the idea has yet to move in Congress and isn't sure to be included in the forthcoming White House proposal. TeamBush seems determined to press versions of the faith-based initiative through a gauntlet of opposition from Democrats and anti-religious groups. But for all the hopes of a happy bill-signing in the Rose Garden, the efforts to build a space for faith in the public sector will take a step backward if the space is so small that evangelical groups are squeezed out.

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