- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

In my half-century of writing about public affairs, nothing has been more perplexing than the fate of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative. Friday's House of Representatives adoption cannot hide that the bill guts what once was one of the best ideas of any recent administration — and the Senate leadership has already called it dead upon arrival there.
In 1978, a book by your servant showcased the charitable tax credit as the main conservative tool for dismantling the bureaucratic welfare state, to replace it with individual 100 percent tax-deductible contributions made directly to charities of their choice. The idea was that people could decide by contributions whether the Salvation Army knew better how to help people than did the Department of Health and Human Services. When President Bush presented his tax credit and charitable choice program during the campaign, it was a dream come true. When he explained at Notre Dame University that this was his way to reform the whole Great Society, it was nearly Nirvana. Then came the details and the devils, and the congressional sausage factory.
Not only did congressional Democrats prefer government bureaucracy to private charity but they strongly opposed allowing charitable groups to proselytize or to instruct about religious ideas or to allow religious groups to give preference to their co-religionists in employment. According to the president in his speeches, it was precisely the religious instruction in Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army, Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship Ministries that made them effective in reaching into the core personality of the individual seeking assistance to change lives. So a party fight was inevitable. But moderate Republicans were concerned too, and held up the bill. On June 26, 2001, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, met with White House and House Republican leadership to arrive at a "compromise."
After translation into legislative language at a Judiciary Committee meeting on June 27, the result was: (1) religions were obliged to create separate organizations for their charitable work if they were to receive federal grants; (2) these could not give religious "instruction" to program participants; (3) any instruction must be "voluntary" and "separate" from the program funded by the grant; (4) voucher programs were encouraged and distinguished from grants but "religious beliefs" could not be considered for them either; and (5) the section allowing a faith-based charity to give preference in employment to believers was eliminated. Some compromise.
On July 11, the House Ways and Means Committee met to consider the other part of the Bush program, to allow the current charitable tax deduction to be taken by nonitemizing taxpayers. This was a modest version of a new, higher charitable tax credit available to all that would replace government programs, but it was a step in the right direction. It would cost a modest $84 billion over 10 years. The GOP-controlled committee allowed a pitiful $6.3 billion over 10 years. A half a billion dollars a year is mere rounding error to Congress.
Separate faith-based charitable organizations were granted "autonomy" from federal, state and local government, a provision White House officials told faith-based supporters would protect these organizations from having to hire individuals who differed from their beliefs, such as hiring homosexuals for some groups. Not only is "autonomy" ambiguous, opponents would merely tell a court that language to do so was explicitly removed. In any event, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said the language "would have to go" in the Senate anyway. The White House was forced to admit that even the House legislation not only gave none of the protections to the separate organizations that are available to the parent religious organization in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it offered less protection than the charitable choice" law signed by President Clinton in 1996. And to pass the bill, the Speaker promised to weaken it further later on.
What are faith-based organizations if they cannot instruct about faith? It is hard to disagree with Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat: "If you are not proselytizing in the program, you don't need charitable choice." All you need to do is apply under existing standards. There is nothing left in the bill that allows what President Bush found was so successfully accomplished by religious charities. All that is left are new restrictions on faith-affiliated organizations.
It is hard to believe the president understands what has happened to his program. In truth, admitting faith-based organizations into government programs does cause difficulties; that is why tax credits are the better solution. President Bush should tell the country that the Democrats do not want faith-based solutions and that he needs a large Republican majority in Congress to get the real job done with tax credits.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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