- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

Congress yesterday moved forward on two fronts with President Bush's proposal to revolutionize welfare by giving religious organizations greater access to federal money and encouraging donations for their programs to help the poor.
"We can't discriminate against faith-based groups," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. "Instead we must help them to provide help and hope."
In separate bills introduced in the House and Senate, sponsors seek to promote charitable giving through a wide range of new tax credits and to allow religious groups to apply for federal grants to administer social services.
"If churches and faith-based organizations can respond effectively to some of the people in need, we should encourage them," said Rep. Tony P. Hall, Ohio Democrat. "The best kind of religion in the world is to take care of poor people."
Unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not include the "charitable choice" provision that has generated criticism from those on both right and left who worry that the initiative could entangle churches and the government.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and sponsor of the bill, said he intends to introduce the charitable choice element within a few months.
Republican sources said Mr. Santorum, who has advocated an "incremental" approach to this new philosophy of government aid, also wants more time to address the concerns of his co-sponsor, Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
"We need a good public airing of this," Mr. Lieberman said. "These are difficult [church-state] questions raised. But they are solvable."
Congressional and White House sources said they are not disappointed by Mr. Lieberman's hesitation and consider the president's faith-based initiative to be on a successful track.
"Everything is 'go,' " one senior Republican aide said.
The measures, taken together, represent the core of Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservative" approach to government. He campaigned last year on giving faith-based organizations a more prominent role in delivering government aid to the needy because, he said, too often government is woefully inefficient in the job.
Mr. Bush also has said government ought not to discriminate against faith-based groups by shutting them out of the process.
Speaking to a group of Catholic leaders yesterday at the White House, the president said he believes there is a "great awakening under way in America."
"People are rediscovering the inspiration of faith in their lives and the importance of faith in our society," Mr. Bush said. "Faith gives our lives dignity, and faith gives our lives direction. Faith makes our nation more just and more generous and welcoming… . This is a challenge we must accept. With the right focus and the right leadership, it's a challenge this nation will accept, because this is a great land."
Some religious conservatives, including Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, have raised questions, citing concern that participation by unpopular religious "fringe" groups would imperil the program or that the government could eventually coerce churches to alter their doctrines or missions.
Others, both conservatives and liberals, object that the proposal violates the Constitution's prohibition against state support of religion.
"The bill doesn't have a prayer," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "As long as President Bush and his allies insist on government funding of religion, the plan is dead on arrival."
But Mr. Hall said the bill's prohibitions against religious coercion are clear.
"Despite what critics say, the bill doesn't abolish the separation between church and state," Mr. Hall said. "We still have to guard against proselytizing and religious instruction, and the bill does that."
Mr. Hall said the legislation would expand access to government funds only for religious groups "that have a proven track record only for groups that are getting results."
He also said those who worry about taxpayer-funded proselytizing don't understand the motivations of volunteers who serve the poor through faith-based groups.
"Most of the time, you don't need to preach," Mr. Hall said. "You don't need to proselytize. St. Francis of Assisi has a wonderful statement. He said, 'You know we need to preach the gospel, and sometimes we need to use words.' True religion is, you do your job. And there's a lot of people doing their job in this country."
Mr. Lieberman, an observant Orthodox Jew, spoke in mostly favorable terms about the White House initiative. He said that since he met with Mr. Bush on the matter at the White House a few weeks ago, "The president's charitable plan has not been treated so charitably."
Mr. Lieberman said he has "the same intention" as the White House on charitable choice and wants to hold hearings before they "go forward in unity."
"These are still works in progress," Mr. Lieberman said. "We're working with lawyers, doubters about the process."
Mr. Hall, Mr. Hastert and legislation co-sponsor Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican, were joined yesterday by dozens of community activists and volunteers who work in faith-based programs. One of them was Bob Woodson, founder of the District of Columbia-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who said actor Robert Downey Jr. has served as unfortunate proof that money alone does not always solve problems of addiction or other personal crises.
"Robert Downey Jr. is, in one sense, a poster child for the failure of conventional programs," Mr. Woodson said. "He's wealthy, popular, prison didn't change him, counselors didn't change him, psychiatrists did not change him.
"If it doesn't work for wealthy, rich people, then it certainly won't work for poor inner-city people. Obviously the problem that we're facing is beyond secular money."


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