- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

A House panel last night gave a major boost to President Bush's faith-based social service plan, approving it along party lines in a debate that degenerated into a black Democratic lawmaker's protest over George Washington's ownership of slaves.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the Community Solutions Act, which would allow religious organizations to apply for federal grants, on a 20-5 vote, with all "yes" votes coming from Republicans and all "no" votes coming from Democrats, most of whom had left for the July Fourth recess before the final vote was taken.

"Doors will be opened to the neediest in our communities to receive the help and assistance they seek," said Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.

The debate began with Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, turning it into a protest over slavery that pitted Democrat against Democrat, saying that a resolution honoring Washington made him nauseous because the first president had owned slaves.

"I want to be very, very careful how I say this," Mr. Watt said. "For us to be applauding the statements discussing bigotry that were written by a person who owned slaves is a little bit more than I can, without a churning stomach, be able to tolerate. I'm sure he did magnificent things and wonderful things. But we should also keep in context the reality that there is substantial pain still among many people in our country about this chapter in our history."

Mr. Sensenbrenner had asked the panel to approve a resolution by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, encouraging the distribution of a letter written by Washington to the nation's first synagogue in 1790 as an example of religious tolerance.

Washington agreed with a member of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., that the federal government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

But Mr. Watt, who is black, called such words hypocritical, saying "To honor words that were written that frankly didn't have the substance that the words themselves suggest … is a little bit more than I can do. So at this point I'm going to excuse myself."

Mr. Watt remained seated in the committee room but abstained from voting on the resolution, which was approved on a voice vote. No other Democrats objected to the measure.

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, said he was "a little chagrined" that he had not thought of the slavery issue. He said he hoped Mr. Kennedy's resolution would be amended to reflect Mr. Watt's concerns before it comes before the full House.

And Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, thanked Mr. Watt "for reminding us that we are still in an imperfect union." She urged the committee to address a bill by Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, calling for reparations to blacks for slavery.

Republicans on the panel did not address the slavery issue, and Mr. Sen-senbrenner said he had merely allowed Mr. Kennedy to bring up the resolution in the spirit of bipartisanship.

Throughout the day, the committee voted down a series of Democratic amendments seeking to weaken the bill, arguing that Mr. Bush's proposal blurs the separation of church and state.

They also objected to a provision, standard in civil rights legislation since 1964, that lets churches and synagogues take religion into account in hiring practices.

"Why do you want to discriminate based on religion?" asked Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat.

Republicans said the bill preserves the current exemption for churches on hiring and is necessary because a church employee likely would be performing two jobs one for the church and one for the government-funded program.

"Otherwise, you'll be altering the nature of the religious organization itself," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Republican.

Republicans reminded Democrats that President Clinton approved a welfare bill in 1996 that includes limited opportunities for churches to receive federal grants. Republicans also pointed out that Democrat Al Gore supported the faith-based plan in his presidential campaign last year.

That prompted Mr. Frank to remark, "Gore and Clinton can say what they want. It doesn't establish the merits" of the plan.

Mr. Sensenbrenner replied, "We've already established in this committee that Clinton was not infallible," referring to Mr. Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

The chairman agreed to hold yesterday's hearing after the White House satisfied his concerns about constitutional problems with the bill. The Justice Department suggested language clarifying that any religious teaching offered by an organization is voluntary for the individuals receiving government services.

Several Democrats expressed fear about what they called "cults" obtaining government grants. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, asked what would happen if a group of Wiccans, or witches, applied for a grant to provide child-care services.

Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, said any organization is free to apply for a grant, but the government must decide which group can best deliver the services.

That provoked a dispute among Democrats over the worthiness of the Nation of Islam. Mr. Frank noted that the group had been contracted to provide security in government housing several years ago and that critics had pressed the federal government to stop using them.

Mr. Weiner, who is Jewish, called the Nation of Islam "virulently anti-Semitic." But Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, called the black Muslim group "absolutely effective" in fighting crime and drugs in public housing.

At one point in the debate, an exasperated Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, chastised Democrats and said the bill was aimed at "an army of people motivated by spiritual impulses who want to do good."

"We've spent all afternoon finding ways to keep them out," he said.

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