- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

Diverse state laws and a Supreme Court ruling backing vouchers have complicated the faith-based policy debate, but religious welfare groups still have many ways to operate, according to a 50- state study.
"There are a lot of constitutional, permissible avenues," law professor Robert W. Tuttle, co-author of the "State of the Law" report, said yesterday. "This is not only complicated law, but it's law with constitutional rulings just this year."
The study, conducted by Mr. Tuttle and Ira Lupu, both of George Washington University, looked at how laws in the 50 states match up with a 1996 federal provision that allows religious groups to bid for welfare grants.
The report did not provide overall numbers of matchups or conflicts because comparisons are complex and often play out at county and city levels.
The report comes as President Bush, hoping to make grants easier for religious groups, will announce today in a trip to Philadelphia new executive orders putting charitable-choice offices in more federal agencies.
Current law, the study said, holds that religious groups "may not be favored or disfavored" when compared with secular welfare groups that get funds, and their services "must be limited to secular activity."
But with a Supreme Court ruling this year that backed state-funded vouchers, U.S. law is likely to allow welfare vouchers to be spent at "pervasively" religious social services, especially for family problems or addictions.
"Vouchers are the way to go," Mr. Tuttle said, suggesting they will solve some direct-funding problems with religious groups.
Supporters of vouchers for charitable choice lost that policy battle in 2001, but the court ruling may reverse that.
Vouchers now are legal, the report said, "so long as beneficiaries have genuine, independent choices among religious and secular options," and is part of the "rapid change and significant uncertainty" in the new legal debate.
The charitable-choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare law still must reconcile with local laws. "States and cities vary in their laws on this subject," the report said. "Many state constitutions restrict financial support" for religious groups.
To override that, the report said, "Congress may pre-empt state and local law" when it tries to pass new charitable-choice legislation next year.
Legal conflicts are expected on two other fronts, the report said.
Contracts between governments and ministries are "conspicuously silent" on the group's rights and responsibilities, and while federal law allows funded religious groups to hire only their own believers, some states attack it as employment discrimination.
The 50-state study is the second part of a national project by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. Its $6.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts makes it the largest project yet trying to quantify religious welfare in America.
"We don't have a lot of evidence of efficiency," Mr. Tuttle said. "But we don't have that for secular welfare either."
Feather Houstoun, head of welfare for Pennsylvania, said that states turn to any service that can help a client. "If that path leads us to a faith-based organization, so be it," she said on the panel.
But Paul Bather, a Kentucky state lawmaker active in urban projects, said churches are reluctant to go beyond worship to tackle welfare problems, even if federal money is available.
"There is a difference between worship and service," he said. "But out of worship comes a service mandate."

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