- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Republicans in Congress yesterday praised President Bushs faith-based initiative as needed welfare reform while Democrats, in the first hearing on the plan, criticized it as a back-door effort to undermine civil rights.
"Charitable choice simply means equal access," said Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican. "It is a tragedy that those moved to help others by the strength of faith … face added barriers to federal social service funds."
But Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, said opponents of the Bush plan "will not tolerate turning the clock back on civil rights for a few pieces of silver."
Democratic lawmakers and other opponents stepped up their criticism yesterday, sending a letter to Mr. Bush signed by more than 850 religious leaders who fear the plan would allow churches to bypass federal laws prohibiting job bias on religious grounds while allowing them to accept federal dollars.
While the presidents proposal got its first airing on Capitol Hill yesterday, supporters in the House and Senate geared up for a faith-based summit with more than 300 religious leaders today in Washington that will be beamed via satellite into more than 40 cities nationwide.
"I am optimistic that we can have an honest and open dialogue that will put us on the path to a day when government encourages the good deeds of the faith community, and views them as a partner in the wars against poverty, teen pregnancy and other social ills," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans.
And a new Good Works Coalition said it will spend $250,000 over the next two months lobbying for Mr. Bushs plan with television ads in several states.
"Good works are happening throughout America today — feeding the body and the soul, treating the head and the heart, fighting addiction with support of friends and faith," says the groups TV ad, which encourages viewers to call their members of Congress.
The core of Mr. Bushs plan would expand charitable choice, a provision of the 1996 welfare reform law that allows religious groups to compete for federal funds to provide services such as job training and drug treatment.
A bipartisan bill in the House aims to achieve that goal; a companion bill in the Senate as yet lacks the charitable choice provision due to constitutional concerns of its co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. The Senate version focuses on creating new tax breaks for people who donate to religious groups.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, who introduced the concept in the Senate in 1996, gave a speech last night — closed to the media — in support of the presidents initiative to two groups that advocate faith-based programs.
The hearing yesterday by the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution was intended by Republicans to give momentum to Mr. Bushs plan by examining limited charitable choice programs already in operation.
A welfare analyst for the Washington-based conservative Hudson Institute told the panel that charitable choice programs in nine states are allowing religious organizations to continue their mission unhampered by government strings.
"In most instances, these religious groups have shifted from merely providing commodities to the poor to working with struggling individuals intensively, face to face, through mentoring and job training programs," said Amy Sherman, senior fellow at Hudsons welfare policy center.
She said total federal contracts of more than $7.5 million, primarily in welfare and drug-treatment programs, have served more than 3,000 low-income clients since 1996.
But Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, told the panel that the presidents proposal would unfairly favor "majority" religions in the competition for federal dollars.
"Its the Baptist in Birmingham over the Buddhist in Birmingham whos going to get the money," he said.
Rep. Melissa A. Hart, Pennsylvania Republican, dismissed Democrats argument that charitable choice would foster job discrimination by religious groups.
She said the proposal seeks to capitalize on existing faith-based services.
"The goal here is not to have them go out and hire a whole new bunch of people," she said.
Mr. Scott questioned Miss Sherman repeatedly about a memo she wrote to Republican lawmakers stating that "wacky cults" so far had not benefited from charitable choice.
"Are Hare Krishnas a 'wacky cult?" Mr. Scott asked.
"Not necessarily in my judgment," she said.
"If a 'wacky cult could provide the services, could it get the money?" Mr. Scott asked.
"Its certainly possible," Miss Sherman said.
The letter to Mr. Bush from religious leaders argued that the initiative "would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way."
It was signed by a wide variety of rabbis, ministers and priests. They ranged from well-known figures such as the Rev. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to High Priestess Tamra Johnson, a Wiccan from Orlando, Fla.
The House subcommittee hearing was an oversight session and did not require a vote on the presidents proposal; lawmakers do not have a timetable yet for possible floor action.
"We want to see whats working out there right now," Mr. Chabot said.

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