- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2001

The House of Representatives last Thursday approved President Bush's faith based initiative (HR 7), which now goes to the Senate for action. Despite the invective heaped on the idea by some, the proposal is quite sensible and appealing.

The president has not requested special government funds for religious organizations. Rather, the idea is to allow religiously affiliated organizations that provide social services to apply for government funds on the same terms as other nonprofit groups.

The federal government already has adopted such a policy in limited areas. It was first adopted in 1996 as part of the welfare reform law, and extended to the welfare-to-work program in 1997. The idea was expanded to the Community Services Block Grant program in 1998 and to federal drug treatment programs in 2000. In each case, the proposals were enacted with broad bipartisan support in Congress, and signed into law by President Clinton.

President Bush would simply expand on this foundation. HR 7 would enable religious groups to participate in programs involving juvenile delinquency, crime prevention, job training, low income housing, child care, community development, hunger relief, and other areas.

There is no reason why religiously affiliated groups should not be able to participate in the full range of government programs on the same terms as everyone else.

But more than fairness is involved. There is also the matter of effectiveness. Faith-based organizations often have proved particularly effective in addressing social ills. They are uniquely equipped to take a holistic approach to those in need, touching and reforming their very souls. Generally working with few resources, these organizations have a track record of producing abundant results.

The bill includes important protections to avoid abuses. Beneficiaries who object to the religious nature of a service provider must be offered completely secular alternatives. Moreover, faith-based organizations participating in the initiative cannot refuse to serve eligible beneficiaries on the basis of religious beliefs.

But there are protections for the religious groups as well. No federal, state or local government may exercise control over the expression of religious belief by a participating faith-based organization. The organization cannot be ordered to remove symbols of its faith from view, or to hire employees who do not share its religious mission.

Separation of church and state should be of paramount concern. But if somebody sneezes, a "God bless you" response should not be cause for alarm. As President Bush has said, "We are funding the good works of the faithful, not faith itself."

Some conservatives worry that faith-based organizations may become government dependents by participating in these sorts of programs. Those who have this concern have an easy out they do not have to participate. But they should not prevent those that do want to participate from doing so.

Moreover, faith-based organizations have already proven that they can participate in government social service programs without losing their God-centered, rather than government-centered, focus.

As president of the 60 Plus Association, a nationwide, grass-roots, seniors group, I believe the president's faith-based initiative offers attractive advantages for those in their golden years. Seniors in need would have new options to receive assistance from those sharing their deeply held religious beliefs. Seniors not in need would have new opportunities to volunteer to help others, in a program that may have special meaning for them.

HR 7 includes highly attractive tax provisions as well. Individuals who do not itemize deductions on their federal income taxes would be allowed to take deductions for charitable contributions, up to a reasonable amount tied to the standard deduction. Another provision would allow individuals to contribute accumulated funds from their IRAs to charities tax free.

Finally, the bill would provide for a new concept to aid lower income workers Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). Financial institutions and non-profits would be able to offer IDAs to such workers. The sponsor would match contributions from the worker up to $500 per year.

The sponsor would then receive a tax credit for its contribution. The funds could then be used to buy a first home, receive postsecondary education or training, or start or expand a small business.

Altogether, the legislation offers the most exciting and promising ideas to help the least, the last and the lost in our society. But President Bush's faith-based initiative is bigger than just this one piece of legislation. HR-7 is but the first step in a comprehensive program to provide equal access to faith-based groups in our government, utilizing for the benefit of everyone, the unique and powerful strengths they offer.

Jim Martin is president of the 60 Plus Association, a nonpartisan senior citizens advocacy group with more than 500,000 members nationwide.

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