- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Today, when the House votes on legislation modeled after President Bush's faith-based initiative, America will discover just how controversial charity can be. The legislation, if approved, will bolster grassroots efforts to help the needy. At the same time, it will challenge long-adhered to approaches for providing services to the poor and preconceptions regarding what the role of government should be. These issues strike at the heart of political partisanship, and therein lies the bulk of the controversy.

Mr. Bush's faith-based social action plan is one of the president's most cherished proposals. Lawmakers have put together a bill which appropriately resolves constitutional concerns regarding the separation of church and state. The bill's support of charitable groups is three pronged. For starters, the president has wisely put a great deal of emphasis on promoting donations to charitable organizations by expanding the tax deductions that could apply. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved tax provisions which would create $13.2 billion in new tax deductions over 10 years for charitable giving. And while this legislation falls far short of the $80 billion package Mr. Bush proposed, it is nevertheless a positive step.

Furthermore, the bill seeks to level the playing field for religious institutions to compete for public funds to provide public services. This aspect of the bill is the most delicate in constitutional terms, but the bill seems to ensure proper separation of church and state. The legislation says religious organizations may not proselytize with public funds and those that seek out a social service must be allowed to choose between a faith-based or secular provider.

Finally, and most positively, the faith-based legislation gives the Bush administration power to put funding for social services more directly under individual, rather than governmental, control. The bill includes a provision which allows $47 billion to go to the social service providers that are most often sought out by those in need, rather than by government bureaucrats. Since the choices made by individuals determines where the public funding flows, this "voucherized" approach most effectively sidesteps questions of separation of church and state. This method also best safeguards an organization's ideological or religious character, since provisions regarding proselytizing wouldn't apply.

Surprisingly, though, it is precisely this voucher concept which has provoked the most criticism from House Democrats. And it is no wonder, since this approach would revolutionize the government's approach to providing social services, bolstering the role of charitable groups and minimizing that of government.

Perhaps this is why reports regarding a request the Salvation Army put forward to the White House were blown so out of proportion. At issue was the Salvation Army's reservations regarding some state governments' requirements that charitable groups institute domestic-partnership benefits, that are primarily geared to support gay unions, in exchange for public funds. While the charitable group administers and hires gays, it has been reticent to implement such benefits, and has therefore had to sit out some public grants. The Bush administration fielded the Salvation Army's concerns regarding these benefit requirements, but never moved to integrate the group's concerns into a legislative proposal. And while the White House may have waded too deeply into such a potentially inflammatory request, some lawmakers have unfairly sought to blacklist the entire faith-based bill as anti-gay.

In essence, the president's faith-based initiative is a compassionate and innovative way of responding to the community's needs. Government should act as a conduit, rather than as an obstacle, for joining those eager to help those in need.

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