- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Vouchers for welfare services may become the next wild card in the debate over putting faith-based legislation into law, in part because some opponents fear "charitable choice" could set a precedent for "school choice."
The issue has taken prominence after a House bill, passed last month to expand government cooperation with religious ministries that provide welfare services, said federal agencies could convert funds into vouchers to be cashed at a welfare provider.
The provision gives agency secretaries the power to use "some or all of the funds" in a $47 billion social-spending budget for "indirect assistance," defined also as vouchers or certificates.
Conservative and religious supporters of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative favor vouchers because they let welfare recipients choose where to redeem their certificates, including possibly at a religious provider of social services.
Although opponents say government entanglement with religion is their main concern, another prominent worry is that charitable-choice vouchers are "the slippery slope" to a broader trend.
"Once you set up a voucher program for one agency, it is likely to expand to others," such as the Department of Education, said Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes Mr. Bush's proposal in any form.
In addition, some critics say the House Judiciary Committee slipped in the voucher clause at the 11th hour to avoid debate.
But Michael Gessel, spokesman for Rep. Tony P. Hall, Ohio Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the voucher clause had plenty of scrutiny.
"House Democrats filed dissenting views specifically objecting to vouchers," Mr. Gessel said. "It was debated on the floor, and the topic received press attention."
However, he agreed that in the period around the House bill's passage, opponents mostly highlighted worries that government-funded ministries might discriminate in hiring.
"They made the anti-discrimination issue the focal point of their opposition," Mr. Gessel said, so the voucher topic got less attention.
From its inception, the administration's faith-based initiative has hoped to legislate a three-pronged policy that includes direct funding, vouchers and tax incentives to promote charitable giving.
Terry Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center, which advocates a free-market approach to charity, said conservatives have always preferred tax cuts most, with vouchers as a second option.
"Hopefully, Sen. [Joseph I.] Lieberman would support that voucher option" in a Senate bill that the Connecticut Democrat has promised to submit this year.
One lobbyist said that while Mr. Lieberman wishes to pass a Senate version of the charitable-choice bill, he also wants to avoid a fight over vouchers and would rather focus on ensuring that federally funded ministries don't discriminate in hiring.
"When we talk to Mr. Lieberman's office, he doesn't seem interested in putting vouchers in," said the lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. "But vouchers in the House bill could be used as a bargaining chip" by Republicans to make sure a final bill is closer to the administration's agenda.
A spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, yesterday would not comment on his boss's conversations with Mr. Lieberman on a Senate bill, but said Mr. Santorum "has long supported 'beneficiary choice' for the individuals" — the senator's term for vouchers.

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