- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Religious and political conservatives yesterday said the debate over President Bush's charitable choice agenda is a matter of details, not a sign of conservative infighting over the legislation.

"We recognize that details of its application take time to work out," said Bishop Kevin Mennoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). "We have always encouraged our constituency to be vigilant about receiving federal funds."

Debate over the Bush initiative has been stirred by a media emphasis on prominent religious leaders such as the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell saying that the plan will shackle religions with government bureaucracy or fund exotic sects, such as Hare Krishna or Scientology.

Other conservatives, however, said these issues have been known since the presidential campaign and now are being refined.

"The criticism from conservatives is friendly advice, not hostility," said Andrew Walker of the Capital Research Center, which has emphasized the need to protect religious liberty of groups handling government funds.

The NAE, an association of conservative Protestants, adopted a resolution last week supporting the aims of the Bush agenda.

Bishop Mennoia said the two aspects of the proposal that faith-based groups may either get direct federal funds or receive vouchers or tax credits given individuals under "clients' choice" suit most needs of American religious groups.

"The option of these two delivery systems is the genius of charitable choice," he said.

Mr. Bush said yesterday, "we're moving forward" with the legislation to implement the two aspects of the agenda. And a Republican congressional staffer said a first bill "will be unveiled in a week or two."

The legislation is being sponsored in the House by Reps. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican, and Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat.

The staffer said the Bush White House style has been to send ideas to Congress and let lawmakers draft specific legislation. "The White House proposes, and Congress disposes," the staffer said.

Among those wary of charitable choice have been gospel rescue missions, which preach faith to help reform individuals. But the Rev. Stephen Berger, a national mission leader, said yesterday those fears have been assuaged by the policy debate.

"The White House has heard our opinions, and we feel the final result will duly address our concerns over blurring the lines between government and religion," said Mr. Berger, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

Mr. Robertson, a leading religious broadcaster, has said the White House should sort out legitimate from illegitimate faith groups. But William Bennett, former secretary of education, said concern about funding unpopular religions also arose a decade ago with the school-choice agenda.

"You have to accept the fact that if you're going to allow faith-based institutions to play, that faith-based institutions not of your faith will play," Mr. Bennett said.

Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which opposes some aspects of charitable choice, said critics of the Bush plan were galvanized by appointment of a "religion czar" at the White House.

He was referring to John I. DiIulio, director of the Office for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, who has been traveling widely to present the Bush plan.

Today at the Georgetown University Law Center, Mr. DiIulio faces off with critics from secular philanthropies and liberal Jewish groups who oppose the Bush plan, claiming it would divert money from secular charity or lead to abuses by religious groups.

Meanwhile, the Baptist Joint Committee and the liberal Interfaith Alliance will hold a Washington press conference today to issue a guide to be promoted nationwide that says religious groups should only enter "the murky waters of government funding" by setting up affiliated nonprofit entities.

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