The White House and Senate leaders yesterday agreed on legislation to boost charity by increasing welfare spending and tax incentives, a compromise that avoids disputes over direct aid to faith-based welfare services.
The bill, crafted by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, allows ministries that use the new welfare grants to retain religious “art, icons, scripture or other symbols” in their public offices.
The Senate legislation costs $10 billion over two years. The administration requested the time limit because of the bill’s expanded welfare under Social Services block grants to states. The grants cover child care and other kinds of family welfare.
The tax breaks go to corporations that give to charity; to banks that match funds in “development accounts” opened by the poor; and to the 70 percent of tax filers who claim a standard deduction. Under the bill, they may itemize and deduct charitable donations up to $400 per taxpayer, or $800 per couple, a year.
“The president is very pleased to see that the Senate is moving forward with a very constructive action,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. He said the Democratic leadership in the Senate promised to allow a vote on the measure.
“It’s going to stimulate charitable giving in the country,” said Maj. George Hood, head of public affairs for the Salvation Army. “It’s a wonderful first step.”
Other steps are still necessary, he said, because religious welfare providers continue to have concerns about local protections of their religious identity. “That concern is still there,” he said.
The Senate bill, called the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE, takes a different tack than a charitable choice bill passed by the House in July.
The House legislation, the Community Solutions Act, exempted welfare ministries from state anti-discrimination laws. Some ministries wish to hire only workers of the same faith or deny benefits to homosexual couples.
The House also allowed welfare funds to be turned into vouchers that welfare clients could use at religious ministries of their choice.
Maj. Hood and others who watch the legislation closely said these aspects of the House bill will be revived during re-authorization of several charitable choice laws already in force since 1996. Those laws include hiring exemptions for faith-based groups.
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and chief sponsor of the House bill, said he is ready to meet halfway with the Senate proposal. “I have the utmost confidence that once the Senate finally passes a bill, we can work out our differences and put the armies of compassion in the field,” he said.
The compromise comes a week after President Bush reinvigorated his faith-based agenda by appointing James Towey as new director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Mr. Bush also called for more national volunteers under the Freedom Corps initiative.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized the Senate bill for still allowing government-funded ministries to potentially make clients feel uncomfortable by displaying their symbols,.
“The White House claims this plan will offer equal treatment for all groups, but it actually gives special treatment to religious groups.” he said.