- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

President Bush yesterday sent to Congress "ideas and proposals" to expand the ways faith-based groups can use federal funding to run services such as after-school programs and aid for children of prisoners.

"We'll make sure that funding is available to faith-based programs on an equal basis with non-religious alternatives," Mr. Bush said on a visit to the Fishing School, a Christian-affiliated after-school program for at-risk youth in the District.

"Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities," Mr. Bush said. "But when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them."

Mr. Bush outlined four proposals yesterday. The first would allow faith-based groups to receive money under the federally funded after-school program 21st Century Learning Centers; the second would provide start-up funds for projects serving people; the third would establish mentoring programs for children of prisoners; and the fourth would set up programs to help broken families.

Other proposals were alluded to but not specified, although congressional staff said they include a $500 tax credit for charitable giving and new ways to allow deductions for charity for taxpayers who do not itemize.

Mr. Bush, who was joined by four lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said that government can't legislate greater charity but it can promote it.

"We will eliminate barriers to charitable works wherever they exist, and we will encourage charitable giving wherever we can," he said on the second day of promoting a cornerstone of his "compassionate conservative" social agenda.

Today, he meets with 30 Catholic social service leaders to further promote his call for "armies of compassion."

The basis of Mr. Bush's agenda is the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which introduced the "charitable choice" provision and which is up for reauthorization this year. The provision said that faith-based groups using federal money for social services may keep their religious symbols, character and internal governance, but not use the funds for "sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization."

Yesterday, groups that opposed charitable choice as an improper mingling of church and state vowed to turn to the court to try to defeat the 4-year-old initiative, which is being expanded on by Mr. Bush.

Opponents also have said that religious groups receiving the federal funds can easily discriminate in hiring practices, since ministries often hire only people of the same faith.

Mr. Lieberman, in a statement after the Fishing School event, recognized these concerns and said Congress will look at any new legislation closely.

"The devil, so to speak, may truly be in the details, which remain to be articulated," said Mr. Lieberman, one of a few Democrats who voted for the charitable choice measure in 1996.

"I am optimistic that we can strike the right balance of inclusion, and harness the best forces of faith in our public life without infringing on the First Amendment and without excluding those of different beliefs," he said.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Lieberman emphasized that the new proposals will not undercut government's traditional and secular role in welfare funding, a concern voiced by leaders of the largest church-related service systems.

"We hope that the policy will not lessen the government's seat at the table," said Joanne Negstad, president of Lutheran Services of America (LSA), which with its $7 billion annual budget is the nation's largest nonprofit human services and health care provider.

About 40 percent of LSA's annual funding comes from the government. It increases to 50 percent for emergency relief projects.

"We have a long and vast experience in this kind of partnership," said Ms. Negstad, adding that LSA also has navigated a method that serves people without imposing a particular religion on them.

The charitable choice approach, she said, helps "to open the possibility for congregations to be more active in serving the community than ever before."

The Center for Public Justice, a research group, reported in an October survey that in 40 states, governors and state welfare department had not acted on the 1996 allowances for faith-based groups.

The law required states to open the door to faith-based organizations seeking funds, but many states thought it was optional or worried over a church-state dispute, said Stephen Lazarus, a researcher at the center.

"Many of the states didn't take notice," Mr. Lazarus said. "There's some new momentum now."

The Rev. Val J. Peter, director of Boys and Girls Town, the famous Catholic program for orphans and wayward youth, arrived here yesterday for the White House meeting and said faith can be present in welfare work without imposing beliefs on the needy.

"Why should I check my religious fervor at the door with my coat when I go into to help children?" he said. "That's not proselytizing, but they do know a lot about what makes me go."

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