- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

The Bush administration has eased Republican lawmakers' concerns about church-state entanglement in its plan to allow churches to administer federally funded social programs, paving the way for a House panel to vote on it today.
"I think we've finally gotten the wrinkles ironed out," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans and prime sponsor of the bill.
The House Judiciary Committee will vote on the faith-based plan only one week after Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. had raised constitutional questions and postponed action on it. A spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican said he is now satisfied the measure is "constitutionally airtight."
The chairman's concerns were eased after some personal lobbying late last week by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson. They agreed that religious organizations should not be allowed to seek damages if the awarding of a federal grant results in a legal dispute.
The White House and the bill's sponsors also have agreed to require religious groups to create separate bank accounts for federal funds received directly from the government. Benefits received indirectly, such as vouchers for a soup kitchen, would not require a separate account.
Even some advocates of the plan have raised concerns about opening up churches' financial books to government regulators.
The agreement came at a meeting Tuesday with presidential Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Mr. Watts, Mr. Sensenbrenner, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.
The measure also includes a provision to allow participants in a faith-based social program to "opt out" if he or she believes any portion of the program includes proselytizing.
Democratic opponents cite that feature as a good reason to vote against the bill.
"If you're not proselytizing, then there's nothing to opt out of," said Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat and a member of the Judiciary Committee. "Either way, the rationale for charitable choice will collapse. If you're not proselytizing in the program … you don't need charitable choice. Fund the [government] program."
Mr. Watts said many Democrats would never support the president's proposal because they are aligned with liberal groups that seek to erase all signs of religion in public life.
"Their alliances will not allow them to support this legislation," Mr. Watts said. "It's a difference in ideology."
Although he expressed confidence that the House will approve the bill by August, Mr. Watts also related an anecdote to show how much uncertainty has surrounded the fate of the legislation.
He said after Mr. Sensenbrenner was lobbied by the administration, Mr. Watts encountered Mr. Sensenbrenner on the House floor on Monday night.
Mr. Sensenbrenner told Mr. Watts, "We're moving. We're on the 5 yard line."
Mr. Watts replied, "Their 5 or our 5?"
Mr. Sensenbrenner "assured me we're on their 5 and close to getting it in," Mr. Watts, a former football star for the University of Oklahoma, told reporters.
Democrats complained yesterday that they have not seen the revised House bill. Mr. Watts responded: "What has been tweaked does not take two years to comprehend."
In the Senate, the legislation's prospects are less certain. The Senate bill as yet lacks a charitable choice provision and focuses instead on creating more incentives for individuals to donate to charities.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and sponsor of that bill, has brought in former Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford as a mediator to seek common ground on the issue with Senate Democrats. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and sponsor of the more limited Senate version, has expressed reservations about keeping church and state separate in awarding government grants.
The House bill would allow churches, synagogues and other religious groups to compete for government grants in 10 federal programs without affecting their religious nature. They could still consider religion in hiring decisions.
Mr. Scott said it would be "the first time in 60 years that the sponsor of a federally funded program can discriminate in employment solely based on religion."
The federally funded program would need to be devoid of religious teaching, proselytizing or prayer, according to the bill's language.
President Bush renewed his push for the program on Monday in Detroit, where he received the endorsement of civil rights figure Rosa Parks. Mr. Watts said his office worked for about one month to get her to endorse the plan and he was "delighted" that she agreed.
Supporters had hoped the House would approve the legislation by July 4. Mr. Watts said he now expects a floor vote on the bill sometime before Aug. 1, after the House Ways and Means Committee considers the tax provisions in the bill.

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