- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

In addressing President Bush's faith-based initiative, William Bennett takes aim at those who have significant reservations about the plan's feasibility and the negative impact it will have on faith-based organizations. Their concerns, he says, are "ill-founded." Mr. Bennett needs a history lesson.
Mr. Bush's original plan was "to enlist, enable, empower, and expand the heroic works of faith-based and community groups." The method, as explained late in 2000, accomplished this task using tax credits and reductions in federal regulations for non-profits. The plan as originally constructed recognized that the strength of private charity came from their very independence from federal intrusion, and effectively shifted power from the bureaucracy to the faith-based organizations, fulfilling the commander in chief's orders to bolster the front lines of our "armies of compassion."
But all this has changed. The original measures have been replaced by active funding, increasing dependency on bureaucratic processes thereby weakening the faith-based organizations. Mr. Bennett's response to this obvious critique: "Institutions fearful of the enervating effects of government grants can (and should) simply opt out."
Mr. Bennett fails to address the crux of dependency in his dismissal, and he opens the door to manifold unintended consequences that increase governmental control of faith-based organizations' business.
For example, I recently attended a White House-sponsored meeting with evangelical pastors from very large churches, most of whom were excited about the initiative. When I raised concerns about how a church might do what a church is supposed to do namely, evangelism without breaking the government's rule against proselytizing, one pastor pulled me aside and said, "We find plenty of ways around that. We have taken government money for years and have converted each of the people who work in the government-funded program." I congratulated him for his evangelistic success, but wondered about the ethics behind accepting the money with no intention of following the stipulations that came with it.
For a few, it was a simple matter: The government is going to give out money, ministries need money, so it is to the benefit of ministries to accept it. With the promise of quick financial support, little thought was given to the matter of autonomy. These are the seeds of dependency, Mr. Bennett.
On the subject of autonomy, a glimpse into what the future holds for our faith-based institutions came in the recent news regarding the Salvation Army and its dealings with the Bush administration. When it became known that the White House quietly promised the Salvation Army that it would be protected from laws that prohibit discrimination against homosexuals in hiring practices, there was an outcry.
When this became public knowledge, the White House backed away from its promise. Mr. Bush then found himself caught between those from the Salvation Army who wanted to protect their autonomy and those in government who wanted to protect their understanding of fair hiring practices for groups that get federal money. The Salvation Army found itself far from street corner fund-raising and soup kitchens, engaged instead in a lobbying effort to get on the federal gravy train.
There are many ways for the Bush administration to recognize the power of private charity while keeping government from gumming up the machinery of success. For example, reducing federal regulations on faith-based activities such as day care centers and other children's programs would make it much easier for churches to begin such programs. The current list of regulations governing such ministries shreds the enthusiasm of many churches.
Finding ways to encourage doctors and nurses to participate in free clinic work reduces health care costs paid by the federal government. To accomplish this, the government should extend the coverage of the Good Samaritan law the provision offering malpractice coverage for those assisting an accident scene to physicians and nurses who donate their time to free clinics. Providing a pro bono tax credit on top of the "Good Sam" coverage offers a practical incentive and would allow these professionals to deduct a portion of their time spent from their taxes.
Others suggestions include expanding federal charitable deductions to those who do not itemize and allowing tax-free contributions from Individual Retirement Accounts. Certainly there are more than just the above examples, but beginning here would set the tone for the future in expanding the work of faith based charities.
I agree with Mr. Bennett when he expresses his "hope that members of Congress, in looking at this legislation, will carefully consider what is at stake." Unlike Mr. Bennett, however, I hope that they see the current legislation as furthering the influence of the government, weakening the effectiveness of faith-based organizations, and that they vote it down.

Gerald L. Zandstra is the director of programs for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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