- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday opened its first hearings on the Bush administrations faith-based initiative, with partisan differences showing up the first day of Democratic control.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and new committee chairman, said the topic was taken up "out of courtesy" to President Bush and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and now ranking member.
"We are trying to find some common ground, and that is why we are moving forward," Mr. Leahy said of his decision to open the hearings, postponed in April.
But he soon stated his "concerns and reservations about" the Bush proposal to expand the coverage of a 1996 law that allows faith-based groups to compete for federal grants without dropping their religious identity.
The Democratic leader also said he would move ahead with hearings on Mr. Bushs judicial nominees "within two weeks" of the final leadership changeover.
Mr. Leahy echoed concerns held by critics of the Bush proposal, including fears of entanglement of religion with government, abuses by religious ministries, and racial, religious or sexual discrimination by groups that get government funds.
"Charitable organizations have already suffered one financial blow this year," he said, blaming the Bush tax cuts. He said the Treasury Department reported that the plans repeal of the estate tax will undercut charitable giving by $6 billion each year.
In his statement, Mr. Hatch said that charitable choice was passed by a bipartisan Congress and the Clinton White House, so objections now have a partisan flavor. "This issue has not been a partisan matter to date," he said.
Mr. Hatch cited a Pew poll that said 75 percent of Americans support the religion-government partnerships to help the needy, while Mr. Leahy cited the same poll in saying that 68 percent of Americans worried about "government interference" with religious groups.
The committee hearing hinged on the "Drug Abuse Education, Prevention, and Treatment Act of 2001," which includes the charitable choice provision so ministries offering drug treatment could bid for funds.
"The provision is virtually identical to provisions in other federal programs," Mr. Hatch said.
Supporting that stance, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is drafting expanded charitable choice options, testified that it is better called "beneficiary choice," since a person getting federal aid for welfare problems could choose between secular and religious providers.
While critics say the large denominations already get billions of federal dollars each year to do charitable work, Mr. Santorum said small groups are crowded out.
Current practice "discriminates against these small nondenominational churches, especially in the African-American" and Hispanic communities, he said. The new provision would let them more easily compete for funding.
Testifying in opposition, Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, said charitable choice strips away civil rights protections by allowing groups with direct federal funds to hire only people of a certain faith.
"We are now using charitable choice to redebate the passage of basic anti-discrimination laws," Mr. Scott said. "I believe publicly funded employment discrimination was wrong in the 1960s, and it is still wrong."
Under questioning, he and Mr. Santorum exchanged sharp disagreements on what the Supreme Court allows in exemptions for religious groups that get a wide range of types of direct or indirect aid.
Justice Department lawyer Carl Esbeck testified that charitable choice provisions dont rescind civil rights protection, but they strip away government funding discrimination toward groups with a "high religiosity" or that are "pervasively sectarian."
Sectarian status is "irrelevant" under charitable choice and current court rulings, he said, as long as the group can produce welfare results measured by secular standards.
"Charitable choice is not for all faith-based organizations," Mr. Esbeck said. They must account for the funds and "if they cant deliver the service, they are not going to be competitive for the funding."

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